Are poor communities “redlined” out of AT&T’s fiber-to-the-home service?

AT&T deploys ultra-fast broadband in rich neighborhoods, while poor communities are stuck with slow DSL, researchers claim.

170323 broadband
Martyn Williams

It’s long been said that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. But now it appears that the rich get faster and the poor get slower – at least when it comes to Internet connections.

A study by researchers at UC Berkeley’s Haas Institute found that AT&T’s deployment of ultra-faster fiber broadband in California is heavily concentrated in relatively wealthy neighborhoods, while residents of lower income communities are often left with speeds so slow they don’t even meet the FCC’s definition of broadband.

It’s not surprising that a major ISP is catering to richer communities, but given the increasing importance of broadband to daily life, and the sad reality that lower income neighborhoods in California tend to be heavily minority, the report’s findings are concerning.

What’s more, AT&T appears to be giving short shrift to poor neighborhoods in other parts of the country as well. A study similar to the California effort found that: “AT&T has systematically discriminated against lower-income Cleveland neighborhoods in its deployment of home Internet and video technologies over the past decade." The policy amounts to “digital red lining,” Bill Callahan of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance wrote in a blog post.

AT&T disputes the findings of the California study. "We do not redline. Our commitment to diversity and inclusion is unparalleled. Our investment decisions are based on many factors relating to the cost of deployment and demand for our services. Household income, wealth, race and ethnicity are not factors in these decisions," says an AT&T spokesperson. 

That spokesperson went on the say that the report uses data from June 2016 and ignores AT&T's investment in high-speed internet access over fiber and other technologies like wireless. "Since that time we have grown our 100-percent fiber network in California by over five times. We believe in the importance of giving the communities we serve effective internet speeds, options and the ability to choose the product that works best for them," the spokesperson says. "We continue to invest billions of dollars in our wireless and wired infrastructure to further advance our customers’ options and experience. We are also experimenting with new technologies (5G, AirGig, and G.Fast) and participating in the FCC Connect America Fund programs to reach even more people."

The California study was extensive. Drawing on data provided by the FCC, the report highlights disparities in service across 71 percent of California, or 56 California counties in which AT&T provides wireline phone and internet service. 

According to the report, 42.8 percent of California households – approximately 4.1 million homes – in AT&T’s network do not have access to high-speed broadband from AT&T as defined by the Federal Communications Commission, which classifies this service as a 25 Mbps download and a 3 Mbps upload connection.

The disparity of household incomes when correlated with access to Internet speeds is striking. Neighborhoods for whom the fastest option is traditional DSL, which tops out at about 1 percent of the speed fiber offers, have a median income of $53.186. But communities with access to AT&T’s fiber-to-the-home offering have a median income of $94,208, according to the report.

“Now more than ever, access to high-speed internet is a necessity for all Americans, shaping how we work and learn and giving us the tools we need to get ahead in today’s economy,” said Eli Moore, Program Manager at the Haas Institute and co-author of the report. “Instead of providing equitable access to this invaluable resource, AT&T is unfairly denying millions of middle and working-class Californians the modern technologies needed to thrive in the data-rich, fast-paced digital world.”

The reports on AT&T’s service in California and Cleveland beg an important question: Do other broadband providers deploy fiber to the home in an equally unfair manner? I suspect the answer is probably yes. Deploying fiber is an expensive proposition and providers need to find neighborhoods that offer the densest concentrations of subscribers.

That’s not to excuse the situation, but it does argue for some sort of regulatory action or maybe subsidies that will bring modern connectivity to everyone.

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