In Detroit, AT&T is facing a formal FCC complaint accusing the telecom giant of deploying discriminatory “digital redlining” tactics. This is the second such complaint filed against the telecommunications giant since the first of the year.
Demanding Equality in Connectivity
The complaint filed by civil rights attorney Daryl Parks says the FCC violated the Communications Act which forbids unjust and unreasonable discrimination. A month earlier, Parks filed a similar complaint on behalf of three Cleveland residents. In both instances, Parks and community members maintain that AT&T is withholding high-speed Internet from minority neighborhoods that have higher poverty rates.
These complaints fall under Title II of the Communications Act, which contains not only net neutrality rules but important consumer protections regarding discrimination. Title II SEC. 202. [47 U.S.C. 202] (a) clearly specifies:
It shall be unlawful for any common carrier to make any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services for or in connection with like communication service, directly or indirectly, by any means or device, or to make or give any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to any particular person, class of persons, or locality, or to subject any particular person, class of persons, or locality to any undue or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage.
The first complaint filed in Cleveland last March was prompted by a report from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance and Connect Your Community group. Their analysis concluded that the disparities among neighborhoods are a product of over a decade of deliberate infrastructure investment decisions, resulting in digital redlining. Their well-documented maps help visualize these disparities among neighborhoods.
The Roots of Redlining
Redlining is defined as denying or withholding services to residents of a certain area based on its ethnic or racial demographic. Redlining has been deployed for decades, most notably by the banking sector and their mortgage lending departments. Beginning in the 1930s, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) compiled homeowner data for booming cities— primarily in the rust belt— and they drafted maps with red outlining city blocks containing “undesirable inhabitant types” of high-risk. The maps were sectioned off into four categories: Grade A (“highly desirable”), Grade B (“somewhat desirable”), Grade C (“declining”), and red were Grade D (“to be avoided”). In Richmond for example, the damning red of Grade D was almost exclusively assigned to areas described as “negro”. The historical consequences have been disastrous, primarily for low-income communities of color across the nation.
This history, coupled with the onslaught of ballooning telecom monopolies following the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, created a favorable environment for disinvestment in low-income neighborhoods. From the mid-1990s onward, FCC regulators have allowed numerous monopolies to form under the condition that they strive to provide universal service— this same sentiment was echoed with the recent merging of AT&T and DirectTV. But in the absence of any real FCC oversight, these mega companies are willfully ignoring agreed upon terms and neglecting to invest in less profitable areas like the lower income neighborhoods in Detroit and Cleveland. The same neighborhoods that were subjected to racist housing policies and loan services more than eighty years ago lack high-speed Internet access.
NDIA’s report does not specifically invoke race or ethnicity— opting for the phrasing ‘lower-income neighborhoods’. The socio-economic realities of these communities, a result of the banking industries mid-century redlining tactics, has become the impetus for new types of discriminatory investment in these same areas. Moreover, the current low-income status’ of neighborhoods in Detroit and Cleveland are very much a product of earlier redlining tactics by mortgage lenders. This low-income status is now being touted as a rationale for skirting telecommunication investment (“digital redlining”) in these neighborhoods. Bottom line: high-speed Internet service isn’t offered based on your individual income levels, it’s very much dependent on where you live.
AT&T is avoiding investment in low-income communities because they don’t expect substantial returns. Private companies need ever-increasing profit that will keep their shareholders happy. It’s the same logic for not investing in rural communities. Parks argues that in these communities of color, AT&T is knowingly or not, perpetuating an oppressive legacy rooted in racism and demands a shift from this damaging legacy.
Exploiting Already Underserved Communities
The FCC complaint cites Dr. Brian Whitcare’s analysis of publicly available datasets submitted by AT&T on its Form 477. Whitcare specifically looked at Detroit and found that AT&T hasn’t made significant investments to support its improved fiber technology in census blocks with poverty rates above 35 percent.
Joan Marsh, AT&T’s chief regulatory and external affairs officer plainly stated
“We do not redline,” adding “Our investment decisions are based on the cost of deployment and demand for our services and are of course fully compliant with the requirements of the Communications Act.”
When AT&T and DirectTV merged in 2015, there was a clear condition mandated by the FCC: AT&T would be required to offer an affordable Internet plan for low-income households. AT&T created a program called “Access” that allowed low-income residents access to their lowest-tier 3 Mbps plan for $5 per month. But because of insufficient infrastructure in many sectors of Detroit (outdated copper wires), many households’ maximum download speeds topped out around 1.5 Mbps. As in Cleveland, AT&T’s decrepit infrastructure in these communities created atrocious download speeds that, through an absurd loophole, allowed AT&T to manipulate the mandated FCC terms and deny these households enrollment in the Access program. The sole remaining option for households deemed ineligible for the Access program was a normal plan that was six times the cost. That said, it appears AT&T has revised the stipulations recently so these households can join the Access program and pay a reduced rate for their sluggish Internet.
Even with the revised plan, Parks adamantly opposes the poor connectivity and service being doled out to Detroit's low-income and historically disadvantaged communities of color.
"There are some commodities we ensure people have. We don't give people inferior water service if they live in the wrong area. We don't give people inferior electric service if they're living in the wrong area."