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It's Time to End Broadband Discrimination
Low-income and minority neighborhoods often receive vastly slower internet speeds. Internet providers should be held responsible for their inequalities.
For far too long, low-income and minority neighborhoods have faced a broadband injustice. Internet service to neighborhoods across the country is often unreliable, at times non-existent, and can even be expensive for the quality of service.
A 2022 analysis by the nonprofit journalism organization The Markup reveals numerous discrepancies that have plagued broadband access for years.
This includes low-income and minority neighborhoods receiving vastly slower internet speeds than higher income neighborhoods, and often for the same price. And for many residents in neighborhoods with slow internet service, these disparities feel personal.
New Orleans resident Shirley Neville, who lives in a minority neighborhood, told The Markup that she wasn't able to join a Zoom meeting due to slow internet speeds. “When I was getting ready to use my tablet for a meeting, it was cutting off and not coming on.”
In Neville's neighborhood, AT&T offered download speeds of only 1 megabit per second, a speed that is virtually useless by today's standards. (By definition, The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) labels broadband as internet speeds of at least 25 Mbps).
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a nonprofit that works to advance digital equity, released a study in 2020 showing that AT&T has consistently avoided upgrading low-income and minority neighborhoods to fiber. "AT&T prioritizes network upgrades to wealthier areas, leaving lower income communities with outdated technologies—households with fiber available have median income 34 percent higher than those with DSL only."
And things do look different in more affluent neighborhoods. For example, in the mostly White, upper-income neighborhood of Lakeview in New Orleans, "AT&T offers residents...internet speeds almost 400 times faster than Neville’s—for the same price: $55 a month," states The Markup's report.
And AT&T is not the only culprit. In the cities researched by The Markup, AT&T, Earthlink, Verizon, and CenturyLink all offered "base speeds at or above 200 Mbps in some neighborhoods for the same price as connections below 25 Mbps in others."
Out of the 39 U.S. cities The Markup examined, nine out of 10 lower income households got the worst deal. Their examination also showed that in two-thirds of the cities "the providers gave the worst offers to the least-White neighborhoods."
"Residents of neighborhoods offered the worst deals aren’t just being ripped off; they’re denied the ability to participate in remote learning, well-paying remote jobs, and even family connection and recreation—ubiquitous elements of modern life," notes The Markup.
In what sounds like a sad excuse, broadband providers deny any wrongdoing and note that the technology that brings internet access into homes can vary in maintenance expenses.
“Fiber can be hundreds of times faster than legacy broadband—but that doesn’t mean that legacy networks cost hundreds of times less,” USTelecom senior vice president Marie Johnson told The Markup.
For years, the FCC has sat quietly while American households have been treated to unfair and oftentimes racist actions by broadband providers. Though this might be about to change. Next week, the FCC will vote on a series of proposed rules designed to "prevent and eliminate" digital discrimination.
Broadband service providers have for too long discriminated against low-income and minority neighborhoods. In fact, the U.S. has never had a fair and equal system that would offer equal access to broadband, even though the debate around broadband inequality has been going on for years. It's time to end broadband discrimination.
“It isn’t just about the provision of a better service. It’s about access to the tools people need to fully participate in our democratic system,” Chad Marlow, a senior policy counsel at the ACLU told The Markup. “That is a far bigger deal and that’s what really worries me about what you’re finding.”