The FCC's New Broadband Explainers Just Make It More Complicated

Today, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) revealed new labels to help people cut through the bullshit when they’re buying home internet or mobile data plans. The labels are meant to combat hidden fees and blatantly misleading advertising that many consumers complain about when purchasing internet.

Although these type of labels are completely necessary—we all know the nightmare of receiving an outrageously high internet bill—the FCC wasted the opportunity to make a label that is useful and also easy to use.

An example of the FCC’s mobile broadband label.

The introduction of these labels was botched from the very beginning. The FCC said in a statement that it “asked its Consumer Advisory Committee to recommend a disclosure format that should be clear and easy to read—similar to a nutrition label on food items.”

The problem is that the FDA’s food labels are not a shining example of success. In 2013, FDA researchers discovered that its own labels were mostly confusing to consumers and tried a new redesign a year later. But the biggest problem is the notices are meant to be read online, and they’re following a design format made for print.

“The same rules don’t apply when you’re talking about a website,” said UI designer and known government design critic Andrew Miller in an interview with Gizmodo. “You shouldn’t put all of the data right up front. That’s not usable.”


Essentially, the FCC didn’t learn the lesson that took the FDA years to fix. In this side by side of food labels (the updated version shown on the right), you can see a noticeable data hierarchy. While not perfect by any means, it at least highlights what information is important—like total calories and servings per container—and then drills into the specifics.


The FCC’s new label doesn’t even attempt to explain what “data packet loss” means, and gives it equal weight to download/upload speeds, which is significantly more important to the user experience.

Update: The FCC says they will link out to a glossary of terms in the label when it is completely finished.


With 2,000 complaints a year, the FCC should have been able to prioritize the information most important to users, Miller says. An FCC spokesperson told Gizmodo they didn’t test to see if the new labels helped answer customers’ questions.

Then there’s a problem of hyperlinking.

“You can tell that it immediately doesn’t work by having important information gated away by hyperlinks,” senior digital designer Mark Manalaysay told Gizmodo. “While yes, you need to keep it simple initially for someone, this also means that by leaving the full options list on another page, it doesn’t fairly show you all the options presented.”


But it’s not all bad news. Internet advocacy groups like Public Knowledge stand behind the new labels, saying the format is an easily recognizable image signaling that this is trustworthy information, thanks in part to the long lineage of the FDA’s white-and-black info boxes. “This is a good step forward. This is why you roll it out and improve it over time,” said Public Knowledge’s Chris Lewis. Of course, it took 20 years for the FDA to update the design of its own label.

The labels themselves are only recommended, though they will provide “safe harbor” for any company that uses them. In other words, companies run the risk of being investigated for not complying with transparency rules. So, let’s call it a “strong encouragement.”


Unfortunately, it likely won’t help the people who need it most—those who don’t understand the intricacies of mobile and broadband data. Instead, Miller says, it raises more questions than it answers. “When creating this label, they missed out on a huge opportunity,” Miller says. “The ability to organize content on the web is could be easy to use, accessible, and most importantly, it could show information in a hierarchical manner that doesn’t need to fit into a 3-by-5 square on a cereal box.”

Image via Getty


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