A few years into the pandemic, Shirley Neville finally had enough of her shoddy internet service.
“When I was about to use my tablet for a meeting, it would shut off and not turn on,” said Neville, who lives in a middle-class New Orleans neighborhood whose residents are almost all black. or Latinos.
Neville said she was willing to pay more to be able to zoom uninterrupted, so she called AT&T to upgrade her connection. She said she was told there was nothing the company could do.
In its region, AT&T only offers download speeds of 1 megabit per second or less, trapping it in a digital stone age. Its internet is so slow that it doesn’t meet Zoom’s recommended minimum for group video calls; does not come close to the Federal Communications Commission definition of broadband, currently 25 Mbps; and is well below median US home internet speeds, which average 167 Mbps.
“In my neighborhood, it’s terrible,” Neville said.
But that’s not the case in other parts of New Orleans. AT&T is offering residents of the predominantly white, high-income neighborhood of Lakeview internet speeds nearly 400 times faster than those in Neville — for the same price: $55 a month.
The vast gap between the quality of service offered by AT&T to these neighborhoods for the same cost is no accident.
The markup gathered and analyzed more than 800,000 internet service offerings from AT&T, Verizon, Earthlink and CenturyLink in 38 cities across America and found that all four consistently offered fast base speeds of 200 Mbps or more in some neighborhoods for the same price as the connections below. 25 Mbps in others.
The places where neighborhoods offered the worst deals had lower median incomes in nine of the 10 cities in the analysis. In two-thirds of cities where The Markup had enough data to compare, providers were making the worst deals to less white neighborhoods.
These providers also made disproportionately the worst deals to formerly demarcated areas in each of the 22 cities examined where digitized historical maps were available. These are areas that a since-disbanded agency created by the federal government in the 1930s deemed “unsafe” for financial institutions to invest in, often because the residents were black or poor. Redlining was banned in 1968.
Pamela Jackson-Walters, a 68-year-old longtime resident of Detroit’s Hope Village, said she needed the internet to work on her organizational leadership thesis at the University of Phoenix online and to attend virtually to religious services. The slow speeds offered by AT&T were a constant annoyance.
“They still haven’t installed high-speed internet here,” she said. “How do you get it? Are we too poor of a neighborhood to have the best service?
Hope Village has a per capita income of just over $11,000 and is almost entirely black.
To add insult to injury, last fall AT&T’s Internet service in Hope Village went down for 45 days before being restored. This summer, Jackson-Walters’ internet connection was down again, this time for four weeks, she said.
Until The Markup shared its findings with residents of Hope Village on AT&T’s pricing practices in Detroit, they didn’t know that lower-income areas were more often asked to pay the same price for internet. slower.
By failing to price based on service speed, these companies require some customers to pay significantly higher unit prices than others for the advertised download speed. CenturyLink, which had the most extreme disparities, offered some customers 200 Mbps service, as low as $0.25 per Mbps, but offered others living in the same city only 0.5 Mbps for the same price – a unit price of $100 per Mbps, or 400 times more.
Residents of neighborhoods where the worst deals are offered aren’t just ripped off; they are denied the opportunity to participate in distance learning, high-paying remote jobs, and even family ties and hobbies – ubiquitous elements of modern life.
“It’s not just about providing better service. It’s about accessing the tools people need to fully participate in our democratic system,” said ACLU Senior Policy Advisor Chad Marlow. “It’s a much bigger deal and that’s what really worries me about what you find.”
Christopher Lewis, president and CEO of the nonprofit Public Knowledge, which works to expand internet access, said The Markup’s analysis shows how far behind the federal government is when It’s about holding Internet Service Providers to account. “Nowhere have we seen either the FCC or Congress, which also has the power ultimately, looking at market competition and pricing to see if consumer prices are being abused or if these service offerings have sense.”
None of the providers denied charging the same fees for vastly different internet speeds in different neighborhoods of the same cities. But they said their intentions were not to discriminate against communities of color and that there were other factors to consider.
Industry group USTelecom, speaking on behalf of Verizon, said the cost of maintaining obsolete equipment used for low-speed service plays a role in its price.
“Fiber can be hundreds of times faster than traditional broadband, but that doesn’t mean traditional networks are hundreds of times cheaper,” USTelecom senior vice president Marie Johnson said in a statement. an email. “Operating and maintaining legacy technologies can be more expensive, especially as legacy network components are discontinued by equipment manufacturers.”
AT&T spokesman Jim Greer said in an emailed statement that The Markup’s analysis was “fundamentally flawed” because it “clearly ignored our participation in the Federal Affordable Connectivity Program and our service offerings.” low-cost access by AT&T”. This federal program was launched in 2021 and pays up to $30 per month for internet for low-income residents, or $75 on tribal lands.
“Any suggestion that we discriminate in providing Internet access is patently false,” he said, adding that AT&T plans to spend $48 billion on service upgrades over the next two months. years.
However, recent research across 30 major cities found that only around a third of eligible households had signed up for the federal subsidy, and the majority use it to cover cellphone bills, which are also eligible.
Greer declined to say how many or what percentage of AT&T’s Internet customers are enrolled in CPA or the company’s low-cost program for low-income residents.
In a letter to the FCC, AT&T insisted that its broadband Internet deployments are driven by “household density, not median income.” But when The Markup ran a statistical test controlling for density, it still found that AT&T was disproportionately offering slower speeds to low-income areas in three out of four of the 20 cities where we surveyed their service.
“We do not engage in discriminatory practices such as redlining and find the accusation offensive,” Mark Molzen, a spokesman for CenturyLink’s parent company Lumen, wrote in an email. He said The Markup’s analysis was “deeply flawed” without specifying how. He did not respond to requests for clarification.
EarthLink, which does not own internet infrastructure in the cities surveyed but instead leases capacity from other providers, did not provide an official comment despite repeated requests.
Internet rates are not regulated by the federal government because, unlike telephone service, Internet service is not considered a utility.
Las Vegas is a city where a lot of CenturyLink’s offerings were about slow service. Almost half did not meet the current federal definition of broadband. These fell disproportionately in lower income and less white areas of Las Vegas.
“I think it’s unfair that it’s a slow service we’re paying for that’s not commensurate with the faster speeds they have in other parts of town that pay the same price,” said Las Vegas councilwoman Olivia Diaz. “It breaks my heart to know that we don’t get what we pay for.”
Some managers told The Markup they had been yelling about poor service at high prices for years.
“If I paid $6 a month,” Joshua Edmonds, Detroit’s director of digital inclusion, “well, you’ll get what you pay for.” But he objects to people being asked to pay bonuses for bad service. “What I pay versus what I get doesn’t really make sense.”
This story was reported by The Markup, and the story and data were distributed by The Associated Press.
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