New FCC disclosure rules for ISPs maintain status quo

22 May 2016 by Steve Blum
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Trust the guy next door.

The Federal Communication Commission released its new transparency requirements for big Internet service providers – small ISPs are exempt for now, and maybe forever. The rules spell out how ISPs must disclose performance metrics, including “expected and actual download and upload speeds, latency, and packet loss”, and make that information available via the web.

It might surprise you to learn that the rules aren’t actually new, although the FCC’s decision to reclassify broadband as a common carrier service last year made some changes to the requirements. The so-called transparency rules were included in the FCC’s first attempt at network neutral regulations in 2010. Most of that decision was tossed out by an appeals court, but the disclosure requirements survived.

The FCC’s latest notice rolls in the adjustments made last year, and clarifies some of the details. For most consumers, it’s the download and upload speeds that really matter – that’s what’s advertised, and that’s the primary way they differentiate between offerings. Unfortunately, the disclosure requirements aren’t particularly specific…

Fixed [ISPs] may meet this requirement by disclosing actual performance metrics for “each broadband service” in each geographic area in which the service has a distinctive set of network performance metrics (operational area). We expect that operational areas will be determined by the technology used and by network management practices, and that many fixed BIAS providers will have a single operational area for each broadband service offered.

For example, if you’re looking at broadband service offered by a cable company, all you’re likely to get is a blanket statement saying you can expect download speeds of 100 Mbps, 150 Mbps or whatever they’re currently advertising, because they take the position that since their networks are uniformly magnificent, everyone’s service is likewise.

The one ray of hope is the suggestion that median speeds (or speeds within a median range) be reported, but that’s just one possible way of doing it. Bottom line, if you’re shopping for service, you’re better off just asking your neighbors how it works for them.