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A nutrition box for Internet service?

Of all the data being collected for a federal probe into truth-in-billing rules for communications services, one statistic stands out:

Consumers are paying for broadband Internet service that lags advertised speeds by as much as 50 percent.

That stat was revealed by the Federal Communications Commission last month during a report on its plan to connect the entire nation to high-speed Internet. The news sent Twitterverse aflutter with outrage. Post Tech got tons of feedback on an entry about it. Consumer advocates said the revelation could open the door to class-action lawsuits against carriers for deceptive advertising.

And now those groups are offering one solution to help users from getting bamboozled. The groups, along with the New America Foundation, have proposed a Nutrition Fact box for broadband. Instead of calories, carbs and fiber, the broadband box would break down data on guaranteed delivered speeds, price, and length of contract. Such details are often blurred and buried in the fine print of multiple-page service agreements.


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Truthful delivery of advertised speeds clearly hit and nerve with users who spend an average of $150 each month for their cell phone, cable or satellite television, home phone and Internet connections. And it was added frustration to notoriously shoddy service problems.

Communications service providers often rank low among industries in customer satisfaction surveys. Some online consumer activists have used the viral messaging on the Web to push companies like Comcast and Verizon to refocus their ways. Service at Comcast was so bad for Advertising Age blogger Bob Garfield that he started a Web site Comcastmustdie.com. That site has died and the push online hasn't led to meaningful change on billing practices of communications firms like Comcast, AT&T, Dish TV, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile, consumer advocacy groups said.

"Consumers experience substantial confusion and frustration when choosing a service provider and plan, when using unexpectedly limited or low quality services, and when receiving higher-than expected bills," the groups wrote in final comments sent yesterday for the FCC review. "Substantial changes to the commission’s existing rules are necessary to remedy these problems."

Currently, carriers are generally left to voluntarily abide by some of the truth-in-billing standards, according to the groups that include Free Press, Consumers Union and Media Access Project.

The FCC's review looks at information available to consumers at all stages of the purchasing process of a communications service -- choosing a provider, choosing a service plan, managing use of the service plan, and deciding whether and when to switch an existing provider or plan.

Image credit: New America Foundation

By Cecilia Kang  |  October 29, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Broadband , Consumers  | Tags: consumer billing complaints, customer complaints comcast, internet speeds  
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Comments

Interesting group, this "New America Foundation." Its Web site states that among its largest contributors (probably the largest) is one Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, who has given it millions of Googlebucks. And these "contributions" have bought him the chairmanship of the group. (Holy interlocking directorates, Batman! ;)) Note that Schmidt resigned the board of Apple (another interlocking directorate) but has retained the chairmanship of New America because it is an important "astroturf" lobbying tool for his company.

In any event, let's get on to the substance of the label. The truth of the matter is that no Internet service provider can guarantee a given speed to anyplace outside of its own network, because it doesn't control the whole Internet -- only the part it built and owns. What's more, the Internet was designed as a "best effort" delivery system. The design simply does not include any way to guarantee speed; rather, it designed only to make a good faith effort to deliver each packet if it can.

What this means is that the measurement of speed "at border router" is meaningless and misleading. But then, this group consists of lobbyists, not network engineers, and should not be meddling in a business it knows little about.

Brett Glass
Owner and Founder, LARIAT
The world's first wireless ISP (WISP)

Posted by: squirma | October 29, 2009 7:45 PM | Report abuse

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