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Digital Redlining: How Major American Communication Companies Are Controlling Who Gets Broadband Access or Not

The good news? Your daughter’s school has been designated an “Apple Distinguished School” and, as such, she and all of her peers will receive brand new iPads for their individual usage.

The bad news? Once your daughter leaves school, she can’t use it — at least not at home. For you live in a lower-income neighborhood without access to Internet or a fast-enough connection to take advantage of her shiny new toy. And given that her scholastic success is intimately tied to this new technology, your daughter is now at a clear disadvantage to her peers in terms of homework, research, engagement and general knowledge. Not good at all.

A 2016 Center for Public Integrity investigation revealed that, across the nation, communities with median household incomes below $34,800 are five times more likely not to have access to broadband than households in areas with a median income above $80,700. This means that over 30 million Americans — the majority of them in areas with a median household income below $47,000 a year — don’t have access to broadband. Such stark disparities equate to a second-class experience where common applications like streaming video, graphics and downloading larger files, as well as online job applications, research and banking functions, are either compromised or negated. This skewed process known as ‘digital redlining’ involves discrimination against Black and lower-income communities in the offering of broadband or upgraded services.

“I don’t know if it is a racial issue or a profit issues but, either way, it’s a problem that has to be solved,” says Angela Siefer, director of the nonprofit National Digital Inclusion Alliance. She doesn’t spend much time theorizing over the incentive for a major communications carrier to not offer their full services to lower-income communities.

“What we see is them not investing in those poorer neighborhoods,” she says, ” and regardless of what is causing it, it cannot continue.”

Last month, her alliance released its own report with a data-mapping analysis of Federal Communications Commission broadband availability that “strongly suggests that AT&T has systematically discriminated against lower-income Cleveland neighborhoods in its deployment of home Internet and video technologies over the past decade.”

“The report does not accurately reflect the investment we’ve made in bringing faster Internet to urban and rural areas across the U.S.,” responded AT&T Senior Public Relations Manager Holly Hollingsworth in a statement. “We’ve invested nearly $1.5 billion in our Ohio wireless and wired networks during 2013-2015, with more than $325 million of that in Cleveland.”

But, Hollingsworth’s statement does not accurately reflect or address the alliance’s report, which was pulled from AT&T’s own data submission to the FCC. It shows suburban and middle-income neighborhoods within Cleveland receive sufficient coverage from AT&T’s fiber-enhanced services while revealing a “glaring correlation” between areas of high poverty and areas where the company has not invested in such services. The report also notes how this failure to invest is particularly problematic given AT&T’s successful lobbying of the Ohio General Assembly to remove the standard requirement it serve 100 percent of its service territories.

“The impact is severe,” Siefer says. “It is not just that those individuals can’t get ahead, it is that those individuals are being pushed further behind.” If an individual can’t simply apply for a job online, she explains, or “can’t even do their homework, they are being pushed further and further back so that access to the equal opportunity we like to think is indicative of the United States” becomes “impossible” without access to at-home, uncapped Internet at an appropriate speed.

As opposed to its later digital manifestation, the practice of redlining is commonly traced back to its institutional beginnings with the National Housing Act of 1934 when the Home Owners Loan Corporation, on behalf of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, produced city maps with color-coded areas to differentiate loan policies. This color-coding was both figurative and literal as groups like African-Americans, Arabs and Eastern Europeans were financially “quarantined” from mortgages and related financial services.

Digital redlining also is a question of equitable access to timely services and resources. Discriminatory treatment regarding access to online services widens the digital divide and has consequences that go far beyond an after-school Internet search. Limiting access to knowledge and resources in communities that desperately need both to transform themselves is, at least, unethical and, at most, unlawful.

While AT&T hopes to avoid the latter designation, it is not the only major communications provider under scrutiny. Google was recently targeted over what some believe is the skewed provision of its high-speed Google Fiber services in urban communities, including Atlanta.

But what can be done about it?

Siefer points to two options in particular — regulation and subsidies. While acknowledging many “are not comfortable with regulation,” she contends the compulsion of companies to serve all communities effectively should be “one option on the table.” The second option, Siefer says, is the granting of “subsidies for those companies to invest equitably. So, if it’s an issue of profit where they don’t have the return they want from poorer neighborhoods, then it is reasonable that the government step in and ensure access is available in all neighborhoods.”

After going on to discuss the nuances of distributing subsidies, Siefer hones in on the democratic implications of such skewed digital practices.

“It is not just an economic question, it is a civic participation question,” Siefer insists, noting “so much of the discussion and education around political issues occurs online.” She acknowledges the “incredible power” of Facebook and Twitter in engaging people on issues. “So, if we are leaving portions of our population out of those discussions, their voices are not being heard,” she says.

And if their voices are not being heard, Siefer adds, “then their experiences in life are not influencing those policy discussions we’d like to think are influencing those policy decisions affecting them.”

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