Commentary

Will FCC Force ISPs To Make Full Disclosure To Consumers?

Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski's proposal to reclassify broadband transmission as a Title II telecommunications service could enable the agency to do more than simply create net neutrality rules. The shift, if successful, also should remove any doubt that the FCC can move forward with key aspects of the broadband plan, including matters as fundamental as requiring Internet service providers to give consumers accurate data about speeds and pricing.

Of course, truth in advertising laws should already require ISPs to provide correct data to consumers. But the fact is, ISPs haven't done a very good job in this area.

Consider, AT&T reportedly just agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging that it secretly capped some DSL subscribers, preventing them from reaching promised online speeds. In that case, AT&T will pay some subscribers $2.90 a month for each month they were capped.

Consumers also sued the ISP HughesNet for allegedly delivering slower than advertised speeds. In that case HughesNet argued that its marketing promises -- downstream speeds of just 5 Mbps for a whopping $349.99 a month -- were mere "puffery," or obvious exaggerations.

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Even Comcast, which spurred this current debate by its traffic-shaping plan, didn't just throttle peer-to-peer traffic. The company also angered the FCC -- and consumers -- by doing so without first disclosing the practice.

One reason why ISPs can deliver slower-than-advertised speeds is because many consumers don't know precisely how fast their data is moving. And even when connections seem slow, some subscribers likely assume that there's a glitch in the network, and not that an ISP is deliberately curbing speeds.

Of course, even if consumers suspect their ISPs are tinkering with the connections, there's very little that subscribers can do about it. As a practical matter, many people only have a choice of two ISPs -- their local phone company or cable provider. What's more, that situation might not change any time soon, given that Genachowski isn't currently proposing any steps that would require ISPs to share their lines.

Nonetheless, accurate data from ISPs about pricing and speeds still will at least help those consumers who do have a choice of providers figure out their best options.

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