FCC Developing ‘Speed’ Pyramid

Washington — After meeting with broadband service
providers and consumer groups, the Federal Communications
Commission’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
last week requested public input on a guide to broadband
speeds consumers would find useful when picking a service.

The notice said the goal is to encourage industry best practices,
but it is also advertised as helping the commission
“guide its broadband speed and performance-testing process
and work towards standardized measurements and disclosures,”
a process already underway with “voluntary” help
from industry and consumer groups, according to the agency.

While that might look like the vanguard in an FCC effort to
set transparency standards for its network-neutrality rules,
it’s more like the commission’s version of the U.S. Agriculture
Department’s “food pyramid” for broadband information, according
to an agency official.

“The marketplace for broadband service is a confusing one
for consumers,” CGB bureau chief Joel Gurin said in announcing
the public notice. “Most people don’t understand Megabits
per second in the way they understand miles per gallon.”

For example, the FCC said in the notice, “consumers may
have very different needs for broadband service depending
on what they use it for. Someone who uses the Web primarily
for e-mail, for example, may be well-served by a smaller and
less-expensive service than an avid video viewer would need.
Others, such as online gamers, may be especially concerned
about factors like signal latency.”

One of the FCC’s new network-neutrality regulations
(which have yet to go into effect) will require more consumer
transparency about both wireless and wired broadband service.

Asked by Multichannel News whether the notice is meant
to create transparency standards for those rules, Gurin said it
was more like a parallel effort on a separate-but-related track.

“I think you have to see this as being complementary to
the new net-neutrality rules,” he said, adding that those
rules are about network management and performance.
The notice, however, is aimed more to help consumers understand
what they are shopping
for in the marketplace than to disclose
actual measured performance,
although he conceded the
issues of latency, jitter and speed.

Or put another way: “If you think
about nutrition labeling, there is
the USDA’s food pyramid about
what people should look for in a balanced
diet and there are the nutrition
labels that say, ‘Here is what’s in
this food,’ ” Gurin said. “The kind of
disclosure we’re talking about is the
nutrition labels: ‘This is what you are
getting from this provider.’

“The public notice is more like
the food pyramid, trying to establish
what are the basic things people
should be looking for in a service
provider, depending on whether it is
e-mail [or] gaming,” he added.

Cable operators and other Internet-
service providers were aware
of the pending public notice, Gurin

“Ultimately, it is in [providers’]
interest for people to know what
they’re shopping for to really be able to evaluate these services,”
Gurin said. “We see this as helping continue a dialogue we
have had that has really been productive so far.”

ISPs are trying to give their customers guidance about how
many megabits per second of speed they might need, he said.
“We think that is great,” he added, but noted that there are a
variety of approaches and it would be better to have a standard
for comparison.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association
had no comment on the public notice.

Official comments are due to the FCC by May 26; replies
are due June 16.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.