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Shopping for Internet Plans Can Be Confusing. New Rules Will Simplify It

Broadband ‘nutrition labels’ will look like ones on food, let you compare features, prices

an abstract image showing broadband internet flowing through a rural home
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Most people instantly recognize the nutrition labels on packaging that let you know the calories, cholesterol and fat content in processed foods and beverages.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hopes to bring similar transparency to people shopping for high-speed internet access. New rules from the agency will require internet service providers (ISPs) across the country to display uniform broadband information inspired by the Food and Drug Administration’s Nutrition Facts labeling.

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The goal is to let consumers compare. These rules, which will go into effect in about six months for most providers, apply to both large and small companies. They meet requirements in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Biden signed into law in 2021.

The labels will apply to at-home internet and wireless broadband plans. The FCC adopted one label requiring the same information and in the same format for both fixed and mobile broadband service offerings.

And these labels will be available for broadband plans aimed at new customers. The FCC is not requiring companies to create labels for plans that current customers use but new customers can’t buy, so trying to compare a plan that you’ve had for a long time with a newer offering may not be easy.

“The visual aspect of it really helps in our opinion, especially for an older person because they’re so accustomed to nutrition labels,” says Dawit Kahsai, AARP’s government affairs director.

AARP was an active participant in the process that resulted in the FCC’s regulations. Its comments were cited more than 40 times.

What to expect from the labels

a label detailing facts about a broadband service
The Federal Communications Commission's design for broadband plan labeling was inspired by nutrition labels.
FCC

The government created a template for these broadband labels that providers are required to follow:

• Name of company and plan. At the very top you’ll see the name of the internet provider and the name of the plan because your ISP likely has more than one plan in your zip code. You also will see the type of broadband being offered, either fixed or mobile.

Fixed broadband services are provided to your home or a single location using digital subscriber line (DSL) technology from your phone company, coaxial cable wires from your cable-TV provider or fiber-optic cable from any utility. Mobile broadband, which includes products such as internet hot spots, is device-based and available throughout a provider’s cellular coverage area, similar to smartphone services.

• Monthly pricing. The label must list whether the price shown is an introductory rate. If so, the ISP must spell out the terms: How long does the promotional period last? What is the cost once it lapses? If a contract is required, the company must supply a link to it.

• Additional charges and terms. These include any onetime fees when you sign up for a plan as well as possible early termination fees. Keep in mind, you won’t see taxes in the numbers listed. Prices will also differ by location.

• Discounts and bundles. ISPs may provide discounts and perks. They may be attached to the separate wireless service you subscribe to or perhaps the use of your own modem, router or other gear. If such discounts are part of the deal, you’ll see some of the details in this section.

• Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). This government program helps low-income households pay for broadband. Eligible recipients can receive up to $30 a month for internet service. The label will indicate yes or no if the plan is part of the program.

• Speeds. You will see typical download and upload speeds, expressed in megabits per second (Mbps). Latency speeds, a measure of internet responsiveness, will also be shown and expressed in milliseconds (ms).

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But this can get tricky. What’s typical for one consumer may not be for another.

Several factors can affect the speeds a consumer experiences, including the number of devices in the home tapping into broadband, the quality of your modem and router and how many people are competing for broadband in your neighborhood.

• Data included with monthly price. If you don’t have an unlimited plan and are responsible for additional data charges, that will be reflected here.

• Privacy and network management. The label should include links to the ISP’s policies on network management, such as under what circumstances it may block content; or throttle or slow down your connection; and protect your privacy, regarding how it handles your personal data.

• Customer service. A specific phone number and email address should be listed.

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Where will you see the labels?

The FCC is requiring companies to display the labels at the point of sale, which may include websites, provider-owned stores and other retail outlets. The label itself must be presented, not an icon or link to the label.

“By requiring that providers display introductory rates clearly, we are seeking to end the kind of unexpected fees and junk costs that can get buried in long and mind-numbingly confusing statements of terms and conditions,” the FCC’s chairwoman, Jessica Rosenworcel, said in a statement. “You shouldn’t have to be a lawyer to know just what is in your internet service plan or an engineer to understand just how your provider is treating your data.” 

One place you won’t see the labels, at least under the current rule, is on your monthly bill. Still, labels are supposed to be displayed at online billing portals. And providers must make a label available within 30 days to customers who request it.

Accessible to non-English speakers, disabled people

If a company advertises in more than one language in the United States, such as Spanish, it must make the labels available in those languages. The FCC says this will help promote digital equity, the universal ability to access and use online resources, among fast-growing populations of Hispanics and Asian Americans. 

Labels must be “machine readable,” which the FCC points out is “data in a format that can be easily processed by a computer without human intervention while ensuring no semantic meaning is lost.” Machine readers of one kind or another may help a blind person or other people with disabilities make out the contents of web pages.

An internet service provider will have to make all of its nutrition label information available on a spreadsheet on its website. Other groups will be able to use this information to better analyze plans and create comparison tools that would help consumers in their search for the least expensive, highest speed plan that suits their needs.