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You can pay 400 times more for the Internet than your neighbor, but its speed and quality will not be better

Depending on where you live, the Internet that AT&T offers you may be faster or slower, but you pay the same price for it. TheMarkup.

Photo: IStock

For example, two households with different internet speeds are only a few blocks apart in Kansas City, Missouri, but the neighborhoods around them are completely different. The slower serving household is in a lower income neighborhood with fewer white residents. A slower service does not have a better price. Both households pay the same.

AT&T is one of four ISPs found by The Markup in 38 American cities that offer lower speeds for the same price as higher speeds.

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You can pay 400 times more than your neighbor for internet services. The investigation found that AT&T, Verizon, EarthLink, and CenturyLink were disproportionately offering slow internet service to low-income and lower-white neighborhoods for the same price as the high-speed connections they offered elsewhere in the city.

History of Neville

A couple of years into the pandemic, Shirley Neville finally got fed up with her crappy internet service.

“It was just a headache,” said Neville, who lives in a middle-class neighborhood in New Orleans that is almost all black or Hispanic. “When I was about to use my tablet for a meeting, the internet went off and on.”

Neville said she was willing to pay more to be able to use Zoom without interruption, so she called AT&T to upgrade her connection. She claims she was told there was nothing the company could do.

In her area, AT&T only offers download speeds of 1 megabit per second or less, trapping her in the digital stone age. Its internet is so slow that it doesn't meet Zoom's recommended minimum for group video calls, doesn't meet the FCC's definition of broadband, currently 25 Mbps.

“In my area, the internet is terrible,” Neville said.

But this is not the case in other parts of New Orleans. AT&T is offering high-income residents of Lakeview's predominantly white neighborhood internet speeds nearly 400 times faster than Neville's for the same price: $55 a month.

The huge gulf between the quality of service offered by AT&T in these areas for the same price is no coincidence.

Speed ​​and price analysis

They collected and analyzed more than 800 Internet service offerings from AT&T, Verizon, Earthlink, and CenturyLink in 000 cities across America and found that all four typically offered high base speeds of 38 Mbps or higher in some areas along the same same price as connections with a lower speed - 200 Mbps in others.

Areas with the worst offers had lower median incomes in nine of the 10 cities in the analysis. In two-thirds of cities, ISPs gave the worst deals to neighborhoods with the fewest whites.

By not pricing based on service speed, these companies require some customers to pay significantly higher unit prices for advertised download speeds than others. CenturyLink, which showed the biggest difference, offered some customers 200 Mbps service, which was only $0,25 per Mbps, but offered others in the same city only 0,5 Mbps and 400 times more expensive - $100 per Mbps.

Residents of neighborhoods who were offered the worst deals are not just ripped off; they are being denied the opportunity to participate in distance learning, well-paid telecommuting jobs, and even family bonding and recreation, ubiquitous elements of modern life.

“It's not just about providing better services. It's about accessing the tools people need to fully participate in our democratic system,” said Chad Marlowe, senior policy adviser to the ACLU. "It's a much more serious matter, and that's what really worries me."

Christopher Lewis, president and CEO of Public Knowledge, a nonprofit that works to expand Internet access, said the analysis shows how far behind the federal government is when it comes to holding ISPs accountable. “Nowhere have we seen either the FCC or Congress, which ultimately also has the power, study market competition and pricing to see if they are overpriced and if these service offerings make sense,” he said.

None of the providers denied that they charge the same fee for completely different internet speeds in different areas of the same city. But they said that their intention was not to discriminate against communities of color, and that there were other factors to consider.

Providers response

Industry group USTelecom, speaking on behalf of Verizon, said the cost of maintaining legacy equipment used for low-speed services plays a role in its price.

"Fiber may be hundreds of times faster than legacy broadband, but that doesn't mean legacy networks cost hundreds of times less," USTelecom senior vice president Marie Johnson said in an email. “Operating and maintaining legacy technologies can be more costly, especially as equipment manufacturers no longer produce legacy network components.”

AT&T spokesman Jim Greer stated that this analysis was "fundamentally flawed" as it "clearly ignored our participation in the federal Affordable Connectivity Program and our low-cost Access by AT&T service offerings."

The Affordable Connectivity Program was launched in 2021 and pays up to $30 per month for internet for low-income residents or $75 for tribal lands.

"Any suggestion that we discriminate in the provision of Internet access is fundamentally wrong," he said, adding that AT&T plans to spend $48 billion on service upgrades over the next two years.

However, a recent study in 30 major cities found that only about a third of eligible households signed up for a federal subsidy, and most use it to cover their mobile phone bills, which are also eligible, rather than to pay for home use. the Internet.

Proponents of connectivity said it's hard to get people through the bureaucratic hurdles it takes to enroll in the program when service is slow.

Greer declined to say how many or what percentage of AT&T's Internet customers subscribe to either ACP or the company's own low-cost program for low-income residents.

In a letter to the FCC, AT&T insists that high-speed Internet deployment is driven by "household density, not average income." But when they ran a density-controlled statistical test, they still found that AT&T offered disproportionately lower speeds for low-income neighborhoods in three of the four cities where they researched their service.

“We do not use discriminatory practices such as redlines and consider the allegations to be offensive,” Mark Molzen, spokesman for CenturyLink parent company Lumen, wrote in an email. He said the analysis was "profoundly flawed," without specifying what exactly. He did not respond to requests for clarification.

EarthLink, which does not own internet infrastructure in the cities surveyed but leases capacity from other providers, did not provide an official comment despite repeated requests.

Internet prices are not regulated by the federal government because, unlike telephone service, Internet services are not considered utilities. As a result, providers can make their own decisions about where they provide services and how much to charge. The FCC declined a request for comment on the findings.

The investigation is based on service offerings collected from the companies' own websites, which contain service search tools that list all available address-specific plans using a method pioneered by the Princeton researchers. The specialists analyzed the price and speed of almost 850 offers for addresses in the largest cities of 000 states where these providers operate.

Las Vegas is one of the cities where most of CenturyLink's offerings were due to slow service. Nearly half did not meet the current federal definition of broadband. Low internet is disproportionately found in the low-income areas of Las Vegas with the fewest white populations.

Las Vegas council member Olivia Diaz said that in the summer of 2020, she reached out to families whose children stopped taking online classes in the previous school year to find out what went wrong.

City schools were preparing for the start of the second academic year, marked by quarantine due to COVID-19.

"We've heard all the time that a few kids have tried to get the internet up and running," said Diaz, who represents the Hispanic-dominated neighborhood at the bottom of the city's income spectrum.

More than 80 percent of CenturyLink's Internet offerings in her area were for services below 25 Mbps. The education advocacy group Common Sense Media recommends a download speed of at least 200 Mbps for a household to reliably host multiple simultaneous video conferencing sessions.

“I think it's unfair that the slow service we're paying for isn't commensurate with the higher speeds you have in other parts of the city that pay the same price,” Diaz said. “It just hurts me to know that we’re not getting the most bang for our buck.”

Diaz said the city asked CenturyLink to expand high-speed service in her area, but the company declined, citing the prohibitive cost of deploying new infrastructure in the area.

Some officials said they had been screaming for years about poor service and high prices.

In a 2018 report, Bill Callahan, head of online accessibility organization Connect Your Community, coined the term "tier alignment" to describe charging internet customers the same rate for different levels of service. He said the findings of the analysis show how much America's internet market is based on the "fundamental injustice" of ISPs choosing to deprioritize investment in new high-speed infrastructure in less affluent areas.

“They made the decision that these areas would be treated differently,” Callahan said. “The main reason for this is that they think they won’t have enough money in these areas to support the market they want.”

The FCC is currently developing rules under a provision in the Infrastructure Bill of 2021 aimed at "preventing digital access discrimination based on income, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin."

A coalition of 39 groups led by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Accessible Technology called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to take decisive action to close the broadband divide by examining the socio-economic conditions of the lowest speed areas and the prices residents pay. .

In filings with the agency, AT&T insisted that the standard of discrimination should be a clear, deliberate effort to avoid building infrastructure in areas populated by people of color or low-income residents.

It also requested subsidies to build high-speed internet in low-income areas because, as AT&T argued in a letter to the FCC, “Most or all shortcomings in broadband unavailability appear to be the result not of discrimination, but conventional business case and problems in the absence of subsidy programs”.

Human rights activists say this is not true. "There are very few places in the country where it's not economically viable to deploy broadband," said Brian Thorne, senior fellow at Communication Workers of America, a union representing telecom workers who has been vocal on the issue. He said residents are tired of seeing their employers make unfair decisions about deploying infrastructure.

“We kept hearing from participants that they were laying lines on one side of the district and not on the other,” he said.

Red line

The worst offers were in redlined areas that the disbanded agency created by the federal government in the 1930s considered "dangerous" for financial institution investments, often because residents were black or poor. This red dividing line was banned in 1968.

The term "redline" comes from the federal government's efforts to stem the wave of foreclosures during the Great Depression by mapping with real estate agents to identify areas safe for mortgage lending. White-dominated areas were consistently ranked higher than areas with fewer whites, which were shaded in red. The echoes of these maps are still reflected in things like home ownership and prenatal mortality.

Notes on the historical map explaining why one part of Kansas City, Missouri was marked with a red line mention "Negro invasion from the north". In the same area, AT&T only offered slow service to every single address.

In Kansas City, AT&T offered the worst deals to 68 percent of addresses in redlined areas, compared to 12 percent of addresses in areas that were rated "best" or "desirable."

In a letter to the FCC, the coalition argued that "broadband users are experiencing discriminatory deployment impacts that are no different from those of past border redrawing policies in housing, banking and other economic activities."

Addresses in red-lined areas in 15 cities from Portland to Atlanta offered the worst deals at least twice as often as areas rated "best" or "desirable." Minneapolis, which CenturyLink serves, showed one of the most striking differences: Previously red-lined addresses offered the worst deals almost eight times more often than higher-rated areas.

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 dissertation at the University of Phoenix online and attend church services virtually. The low speeds offered by AT&T constantly pissed her off.

“There is still no high-speed internet installed here,” she said. - How do we get it? Are we too poor to have better service?”

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Hope Village has a per capita income of just over $11 and is made up almost entirely of blacks.

To make matters worse, AT&T's Internet service in Hope Village went down for 45 days last fall before being restored. Jackson-Walters' internet went down again this summer, this time for four weeks, she said.

Geoff Johns, another longtime resident of Hope Village, noted a bitter irony among all the service issues. “I can see the AT&T service center from my bedroom window,” he said with a weary laugh. “I beg them, please help me!” Are you here! How can you ignore this problem that is right in front of you?”

"People don't know they're being scammed," said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digitization Alliance, which advocates broadband access.

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