What's in your broadband bill? Consumer Reports wants to know — and hopefully, to make it cheaper.
More than 40 consumer, privacy and digital rights groups, led by Consumer Reports, launched a drive today asking people to send in their internet bills as part of a campaign to push down prices for, and boost the quality of, internet service through increased competition.
The group effort, known as Broadband Together, hopes to review at least 30,000 bills to learn how much users are paying and figure out where competition is scarce for internet service.
Broadband Together's launch comes as the Biden administration has thrown support behind increasing broadband access as part of an infrastructure bill and taken steps to try to increase competition, including in a sweeping order last week.
"To create a better marketplace, we need to know the truth about our internet prices and fees," Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumer Reports, said in a release. "Shockingly, some bills don't even list the price consumers are paying for internet service."
To participate, consumers will upload PDF copies of their bills to a website that extracts the pricing and service information, Schwantes told Protocol in an interview. The ZIP code is the only personally-identifiable information the website extracts, although the accompanying survey asks optional demographic questions, and the bills are only shared with Consumer Reports.
Consumers then take an online speed test to figure out their upload and download speeds. Not all entries will be useful, the organization admits. In particular, service bundles, in which companies provide some combination of internet, TV and phone services together, may not clearly break out the cost of each service, and Consumer Reports isn't taking paper bills for the time being. But Schwantes is optimistic that the coalition will receive enough bills that he and others can get good data on local price, service, speed and more.
"Once we do that, we can tell you what the ISPs are charging, and then really with enough data, [we can] start figuring out, why is that same plan cheaper in that ZIP code versus that ZIP code?" Schwantes said.
He said he fully expects the answer to come down to competition: Where it's robust, plans will likely be cheaper and offer better speeds. Where it's not, consumers will be paying more for less. If the results do support that conclusion, the group then plans to promote a series of potential reforms. Many focus on government support of internet service, particularly in areas where it might be too expensive for new commercial networks to launch as rivals offering lower prices than incumbent providers.
"Where there's not competition and consumers are stuck, the only person who can help them out is the government," Schwantes said. "You should have some version of a low-cost plan."
Of course, the shape and effectiveness of such low-cost plans is an open question. The $3.2 billion in federal funding for internet access that came out of the pandemic has faced a glitchy rollout, including difficulty reaching the tens of millions of people it aims to help and also issues such as Spectrum's effort to funnel users into full-price service down the road.
State-level action also faces an uphill battle. The telecom industry in June succeeded in its lawsuit to block a first-in-the-nation discount program in New York state. Nearly two dozen states also have outright bans or other significant roadblocks in place to networks that state and local governments might build or run.
The telecom industry, which says that broadband competition is robust and prices are decreasing broadly, has cast municipal broadband efforts as unnecessary expenses on the taxpayer for poor networks. Instead, industry groups push for public-private partnerships like the network that Consolidated Communications is building out for 500 customers in Eastbrook, Maine.
Still, the time might be opportune for Broadband Together's push — particularly if legislators are still debating an infrastructure package in the fall, when Schwantes said he expects results.
Biden's Friday executive order on competition likewise contains provisions addressing residential broadband. One request asks Federal Communications Commission to require reports from broadband providers about prices for internet services and to generate standard consumer labels about broadband services, based on ubiquitous nutritional information labels.
Schwantes said that while the broadband labels, which the FCC had proposed in the Obama administration before abandoning them under the Trump administration, might be a "cuter" solution than massive government support for internet service, it's also a "no-brainer."
"Just looking at all of these bills can make the case for that as well," he said.
Because the FCC is an independent agency, the administration's requests are non-binding. The commission is also evenly split between Republican and Democratic members until Biden nominates a fifth commissioner.
Still, Broadband Together may have history on its side. The inspiration for the project came in part from similar work Consumer Reports did on hidden fees in cable TV bills. Consumers on the group's list delivered more than 5,000 bills in two weeks, which is part of why Schwantes is optimistic about meeting or exceeding his goal with a long list of partners. The resulting 2019 report helped the group succeed in its push for a law bringing more transparency to fees.
The coalition's steering committee also includes Public Knowledge, Access Now, the American Library Association, Color of Change, the National Hispanic Media Coalition and more. Many of the groups are veteran Washington policy organizations, with several focusing on Black, Hispanic and rural communities where access or affordability issues may be particularly acute.