A lot of people who live in low-income or marginalized communities — including urban, rural and Tribal communities — can tell you that they have super slow broadband (if they even have it at all). Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, a hamlet over, or just outside the reservation boundaries, their wealthier (and often whiter) neighbors have access to significantly faster internet. That makes it difficult for people living in these communities to do the myriad things that our society now does online (including working and going to school) and further exacerbates inequality. The same neighborhoods that were once redlined by banks and insurance companies now face similar discrimination by internet service providers, which adds to an already substantial digital divide. This practice of investing less in broadband infrastructure in low-income and marginalized communities is called “digital redlining.” And in 2021, it’s a practice that has to stop.
So, why does digital redlining occur? The answer is pretty simple: Most internet service providers are for-profit companies that won’t make a big enough profit if they upgrade service in these communities, so they just…don’t. Contrary to prevailing thought, it’s not just rural and Tribal areas that don’t have broadband. Sometimes it’s densely populated low-income areas, or areas facing negative racial stereotypes. This is what’s coming into play with digital redlining.
There are countless examples of presumed digital redlining including in Dallas, Detroit, and Oakland, and by different ISPs as well. But, I’m going to discuss how AT&T has digitally redlined Cleveland because I lived there for seven years (and like to take any chance I can to plug how great of a city it is). Despite Cleveland’s excellent hospitals, incredible food scene, top notch museums, and shockingly large number of craft breweries, Cleveland is a city with dramatic wealth disparity. In 2018, the city’s top 5% of earners were taking in almost nine times the median income of $30,907. That’s why it’s unsurprising that AT&T left an overwhelming majority of high-poverty, predominantly minority census blocks with older and slower technology, while upgrading broadband infrastructure in the wealthier suburbs nearby. This led to significant speed differences—areas without upgraded infrastructure were often getting 3 Mbps or less download speeds while upgraded areas were getting at least 18 Mbps or even up to a gigabit!
What makes digital redlining even more of a slap in the face for those living in the redlined area is that this slower service is often just as expensive as the upgraded service provided to wealthier neighborhoods! How this is even possible isn’t totally clear. One possible reason is simply that the companies want to make as much profit as possible and because they often don’t have a competitor offering alternative service in these underserved areas, they can charge whatever they want. Giving the most benefit of the doubt to internet service providers, another possible reason is that their older networks break down more often, increasing their costs to maintain service—costs that they pass onto consumers. But even this reasoning represents a problem of the providers’ own making, since they ultimately make the decision of whether or not to upgrade a community’s broadband infrastructure to better, more reliable, and easier-to-maintain service.
The worst part of digital redlining is that it isn’t necessary. Broadband providers can still make a profit by upgrading broadband service in low-income and marginalized communities. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the “tightly packed populations [of urban neighborhoods] are ideal for broadband providers because they have to invest less in infrastructure to reach a large number of paying customers.” Although upgrading networks might have a high upfront cost, the companies can easily profit over time, as EFF showed by analyzing Frontier’s own bankruptcy filings. The company estimated that it could earn a billion dollars by upgrading 3 million households from legacy DSL networks to fiber. Apparently that just wasn’t enough profit to make upgrading worth it.
If companies won’t invest in poor and marginalized communities, even when they stand to profit, it’s time for Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to provide a solution that will prevent the vast disparities that result from uneven access to reliable high speed internet. Congress and the FCC can finally stop digital redlining by preventing providers from discriminating on the basis of income or a protected class and requiring providers to offer the same level of service throughout their entire service areas. This will ensure that all communities receive proper infrastructure investment.
As policymakers work on solutions for closing the digital divide and ending digital redlining, there are a few other things to keep in mind:
- Slow broadband can be akin to no broadband — think about the last time your internet was slow — you probably wanted to throw your computer against the wall, and scream at your internet company. That’s why it’s such a huge problem that certain communities get older, slower, less reliable technology. Availability isn’t enough, broadband must be fast and reliable.
- In addition to digital redlining, there’s also a separate and distinct affordability problem. Even if we fix digital redlining, many low-income or marginalized consumers won’t be able to afford broadband. Availability isn’t enough, broadband must be affordable too.
The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that broadband is an essential service and the lack of access to broadband perpetuates economic inequality. Moreover, the historic racial injustice of redlining continues to cast its shadow over the present and the future. In a year when racial and economic justice are at the forefront, it’s time for policymakers to tackle another type of injustice. In 2021, we can no longer tolerate or accept that providers invest only in the wealthiest neighborhoods. Robust, reliable broadband must be available to everyone.
Image credit: Tim1965 on Wikimedia Commons