Telecom companies are notoriously disliked. Consumers regularly complain about mediocre service, splotchy coverage areas, and high prices. But what happens when you can’t stream House of Cards or research your term paper because the internet on your block is too slow? And what if the slow speeds were intentional — not because you used up too much data for the month but simply based on your neighborhood?
That’s what may be happening in Cleveland’s poorest neighborhoods and AT&T is the culprit, according to a recent report from internet consumer advocacy groups National Digital Inclusion Alliance and Connect Your Community.
The report suggested that AT&T’s lack of investment and refusal to extend its available discount services to impoverished neighborhoods was tantamount to income discrimination once used by banks: redlining.
The groups analyzed the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) broadband availability data and found that Cleveland neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates had the slowest internet speeds. The reason? Old infrastructure. According to the report, AT&T was withholding investment in updated fiber-based broadband infrastructure and excluding certain neighborhoods from discounted internet access programs reserved for low-income consumers.
As Gizmodo reported, AT&T was blocking access to neighborhoods where at least 35 percent of the population lived below the federal poverty line, about $24,250. The more money a household makes, the more likely they are to have internet access and the more likely it is to be fast.
“Recognizing a publicly traded company’s first priority is to profit means we, as a country, must take the necessary steps to ensure broadband infrastructure is upgraded equally regardless of income, not just for today but for the future,” NDIA director Angela Siefer told Gizmodo. “Since the free market is clearly not solving this issue, we need local, state and federal policies that encourage build out in all neighborhoods, subsidizing when necessary.”
Access to the internet is an economic issue. Many of the estimated 13 percent of U.S. adults who don’t use the internet make less than $50,000 a year, according to a 2016 Pew survey. Twenty percent of Americans in low-income areas don’t have internet access, according to a report from the Center for Public Integrity. For Americans making between approximately $35,000 and $47,000, 15 percent aren’t connected to the internet.
AT&T isn’t the first telecom company to be criticized for business decisions that disproportionately affected the poorest and most internet insecure communities. In 2015, consumer groups sued Sprint for attempting to shutter its aging WiMax internet network in favor of another 4G provider — a move that would have cut off affordable internet access to 300,000 Americans in low-income areas.
Sprint argued that it had an obligation to provide consumers the best service but non-profit companies argued the company didn’t offer a contingency plan or an alternative discount service. A judge ordered Sprint to keep the old network up until a resolution was met.
There are numerous regulatory efforts in place to mitigate that, such as net neutrality, which prohibit broadband companies from throttling, blocking, and implementing other access impeding techniques. But those regulations are at risk under the Trump administration.
Moreover, President Donald Trump’s first proposed budget seemingly extends a stamp of approval to the telecom industry via its biggest lobbying organization: the National Telecommunications Industry Association. It’s one of few industries that will keep getting the same support it saw under the Obama administration. The FCC, on the other hand, is part of a funding block that will see a 10 percent cut.