Truth-In-Labeling? Call the Federal Advertising Bureau

This week, the New America Foundation called for government-mandated “Truth-in-Labeling” from the nation’s broadband service providers. They’ve even created a mock-up of what they think such a disclosure form should look like. In addition to fees, service limits, and contract terms, NAF would like the disclosures to include information such as minimum reliability, maximum latency, and a service guarantee.

While it’s true that the actual speed a user experiences is often a fraction of the advertised speed, this isn’t secret knowledge. Internet companies oversubscribe their networks – that is, they put more people on one connection than what the router could handle at one time. Because, on average, not all customers will be requesting downloads from the network at the same time, ISPs are able to maximize efficiency and minimize the cost to consumers this way. When this pricing/advertising scheme became standard practice, the most common services were web browsing and email, two activities that do not rely on constant data downloading. Today we live in the era of online video games, streamable video, and internet telephony. However, most ISP’s already provide dedicated video and voice services (i.e. cable TV and phone). Online gamers are among the most technoligically-savvy consumers; presumably, they know what grade of internet access will suit their needs. While most consumers don’t know the exact data rate that they’re getting, they do know that 50 Mbits/second is faster and costs more than 2 Mbits/second, which is faster and generally more expensive than 784 Kbits/second. For less knowledgeable  users, “Broadband” is fast internet. Above a certain limit, it’s becomes difficult for humans to perceive the difference between “fast” and “faster.”

NAF’s demands for the disclosure of certain technical aspects are also unnecessary. Minimum reliability is problematic because some broadband technologies are less reliable than others. For example, satellite internet connections are known to be affected by interference from weather and other unpredictable environmental conditions. Maximum latency can be affected by many different factors, enough that giving a “maximum” amount of time (even if it only occurs 1% of the time) could force companies to cast their own service not in a “realistic” light, but in a poor light. A service guarantee would mean that an ISP would refund customers for any amount of time that their connection is disrupted. In my personal experience, home broadband connections aren’t usually out for more than a few hours. A three-hour outage on a $49.99/month internet service would equal roughly a $0.21 refund per consumer.

The folks at NAF may mean well, but you know what they say about good intentions. Government micromanagement of ISPs’ advertising practices is another small step in the erosion of the real free nature of the ‘net.