The broadband gap’s dirty secret: Redlining still exists in digital form

When Christina Wilson moved into Los Angeles public housing with her husband and teenage daughter four years ago, she tried to transfer her internet service plan to her new home. But, as is the case with many low-income communities in the US, the ISP didn’t serve the Housing Authority of Los Angeles’ Imperial Courts. In fact, no internet service providers offered speedy plans for any of LA’s public housing facilities. Instead, they only offered pricey, slow plans insufficient for today’s needs. 

So the 45-year-old relied on her smartphone’s T-Mobile connection for anything she wanted to do online, while her daughter used her phone as a hotspot to attend her virtual film school classes. The mobile devices had unlimited data but came with caveats. 

“What we found out with unlimited data is it’s still limited because they slow your internet down,” Wilson said. “If my daughter’s online, doing school, it’s terrible waiting all that time.”

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The gap in broadband coverage in a poorer neighborhood is effectively a digital form of redlining, a now-banned practice that denied service based on race. In the 1930s, banks started developing maps to withhold loans for high-risk, “undesirable inhabitant types,” who were almost always poor people of color. The redlining extended to a refusal to insure residents in low-income neighborhoods, denial of health care and decisions not to build essential facilities like supermarkets. Even Amazon has been accused of not serving poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods with its Prime same-day shipping plan. 

The decades of redlining represent a form of systematic racism that has denied generations of Black communities the kind of opportunities many other Americans enjoy. And the fear is it’s happening again with broadband internet service. Big providers, when deciding where to invest the money to upgrade their networks, often focus on wealthier parts of cities and shun low-income communities. Fiber connections are expensive, and ISPs are hesitant to expand unless they expect a return on their investment. As a result, poorer communities often have no internet or are stuck with slow, legacy networks that can’t meet today’s demands — even though they usually pay as much as their wealthier neighbors who have gigabit fiber connections.

Digital redlining isn’t illegal since there aren’t regulations that dictate where broadband providers build their networks. But those desirable areas are often affluent, predominantly white communities. Conversely, areas where income is lower tend to be in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, intrinsically tying this issue to race, consumer advocates say. It’s because of those complexities that it’s difficult to truly gauge the magnitude of the problem. 

“Is it intentionally race?” said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income communities to get access to technology. “One doesn’t know intentions. But one knows the outcome, which is the majority of the neighborhoods that have slower speeds from providers … are lower-income neighborhoods, and they tend to be communities of color.”

The number of people caught in the broadband gap overall is staggering. Microsoft, which tracks how quickly people download its software and security updates, estimates 120.4 million people, or more than a third of the US population, don’t use the internet at broadband speeds. The problem has jumped in importance as the novel coronavirus pandemic has made home broadband essential. Without it, people can’t attend classes, work, virtually visit their doctors or even easily schedule appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations. The fear is digital redlining will continue as wireless carriers roll out 5G networks across the country. 

There’s no data about the nationwide prevalence of digital redlining, but studies have found the practice taking place in cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Oakland and other parts of California. NDIA’s annual analysis of the “worst connected cities in America” for 2019, the most recent data available, showed that the top 20 cities with the least access to broadband — including mobile — all had poverty rates of at least 10%, while all but two had high percentages of people of color. Meanwhile, the Greenlining Institute last year mapped out Internet accessibility throughout California and found that areas that were redlined by banks in the past are digitally redlined by ISPs today. 

Lack of high-speed home internet access disproportionately affects children of color, according to a joint study last year from the Alliance for Excellent Education, National Indian Education Association, National Urban League and UnidosUS. It found that 34% of American Indian/Alaska Native families and about 31% each of Black and Latino families lack access to high-speed home internet, versus 21% of white families. That raises the risk these kids will fall behind their peers.

There is hope the situation will change. In his $2 trillion infrastructure plan unveiled in April, President Joe Biden initially pledged $100 billion over eight years to make sure every American has broadband access. (The amount was later lowered to $65 billion to match a Republican proposal). Affordability will be a big part of that, and the funds could incentivize companies to build in areas they previously avoided. They could also tempt upstart competitors to serve the neighborhoods. Biden tapped Vice President Kamala Harris — who is Black, Asian American and an Oakland native — to oversee the country’s efforts to close the digital divide.  

To directly address affordability, the federal government in mid-May introduced a $50 Emergency Broadband Benefit to get people online during the pandemic, a model that could be followed through future broadband plans. It also has provided funding to get internet access to more students. Like the Biden administration, the US Federal Communications Commission, led by Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, has made broadband access and affordability key areas to tackle. 

In the meantime, state and local governments, along with nonprofits, low-cost internet providers and other organizations, are finding ways to bring internet access to underserved communities. In cities like Los Angeles and Denver, budget ISPs such as Starry have built networks to provide $15 monthly internet service in public housing. In East Cleveland, nonprofit PCs for People has partnered with the state, Microsoft and various other businesses to offer inexpensive internet plans and computers to 2,000 residents, while another nonprofit, DigitalC, which has ambitious plans to connect 40,000 people in the city by 2025. Similar programs are happening all over the country. 

At a time when people are so divided, this is a rare issue that crosses political lines. 

“If somebody else solved this problem for me, I would love it,” said Jon Husted, the Republican lieutenant governor of Ohio who also runs InnovateOhio, the state’s effort to improve technology access for its citizens. “It’s not like I have a secret desire to run a government-run internet service provider. I’m just trying to solve a problem for real people that nobody else is.”

The origins of redlining

Redlining was aimed at protecting the bottom lines of banks, insurers and other companies when it emerged in the last century. The groups defended the practice as avoiding “risky” investments, but the definition of risk often was based on race. The policy resulted in entire communities — a vast majority Black — being denied loans, coverage or service. 

While the Fair Housing Act in 1968 made redlining illegal, the effects still linger for Black communities. In the US, home ownership has long been a major factor in determining a person’s financial stability and a way for families to pass on wealth to future generations. In 2019, only about 42% of Black people owned homes versus 72% of white Americans, according to the Urban Institute, and the median Black household held one-eighth the wealth of the median white household. At the same time, historically redlined neighborhoods have “lower life expectancy and higher incidence of chronic diseases that are risk factors for poor outcomes from COVID-19,” according to a study from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

Redlining “created Black poverty,” said Juan Perea, a professor of law and social justice at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law and an expert on the history of racism in the US. “Black poverty has been devastating on equal schools, on equal housing, on equal health conditions, on equal employment possibilities.”

Digital redlining is similar to traditional redlining, though it isn’t based outright on race. Instead, it’s based on income and corporate calculations on whether building service in a particular neighborhood or city will be profitable. 

Internet service in the US is considered a free market service, not a utility like electricity, gas or landline phone service. While ISPs build networks where it makes financial sense and set their own prices, utilities face price caps, coverage requirements and other regulations to make them accessible for everyone. 

While ISPs aren’t openly shunning build-outs in areas because of the ethnic breakdown of a community, they are weighing the money they’ll make from installing pricey infrastructure. Often, they determine they won’t make much — if any — profit in low-income areas, so they decide not to invest there. It turns out, many of the areas redlined by banks decades ago have trouble getting high-speed internet service today. A modern-day map of households in Cleveland without broadband internet access mirrors a 1940s map of mortgage redlining in the city. 

A map of 1940s mortgage redlining in Cleveland closely aligns with a modern-day map of areas of Cleveland without fast internet service. The “undesirable” areas marked in red on the bank map match areas on the broadband map where at least 40% of the households don’t have broadband. The mortgage map is based on an image shared by Ohio State University, while the broadband map is from DigitalC and empowerCLE+ and uses data from the 2015 to 2019 American Community Survey. 

“Digital redlining is the system working as it was designed,” said Vinhcent Le, technology equity legal counsel at the Greenlining Institute. “How it should have been designed is the internet is a utility. At the end of the day, that’s the only surefire way to get out of this. At the same time, it’s probably one of the least likely ways given the amount of money involved.”

The origins of digital redlining stem from a system that was designed to make sure everyone had telephone access. Landline telecom companies were required to provide inexpensive, fixed-line phone service to all homes in the US. Many of those companies then became the first internet service providers, providing connectivity through dial-up connections and later through “digital subscriber lines” via copper cables. DSL, as it’s more commonly known, was considered speedy in the 1990s before it was supplanted by faster cable broadband. 

Now, DSL speeds typically range from 0.5 Mbps — too slow to do most tasks on the internet — to about 100 Mbps, if the user is close to the main hub. Because most DSL connections can’t keep up with today’s internet needs, companies no longer invest in those networks and are instead building fiber or fixed wireless to serve their customers and future-proof their networks. But some providers are only replacing DSL with pricey fiber in wealthier areas where they know their investment will pay off.

The big, publicly traded service providers generally expect to make a return on their investments in about three to five years, said Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

“That’s basically impossible with this high-capacity infrastructure for a vast majority of places,” he said. “Some places [like rural communities] may take upwards of 30 to 40 years to repay the debt and make it work.” In areas with about 1,000 people per square mile, ISPs should be able to make money in the long run, Falcon estimated. “It just doesn’t make money fast enough for their liking,” he said.

While digital redlining isn’t identical to traditional redlining, it could have some of the same impacts over the long term. Kids who can’t take classes from home may never catch up to their more affluent peers, get into good colleges and find high-paying work. Adults without fast broadband can’t participate in the modern economy — completing tasks like paying bills online, video chatting with their doctors remotely, or…