The following stories have been tagged digital divide ← Back to All Tags

AT&T Gets Snagged In Giant Loophole Attempting To Avoid Merger Responsibility

They're at it again. Recently, they have been called out for taking advantage of E-rate; now they are taking advantage of their own lack of infrastructure investment to worm their way out of obligations to serve low-income residents. Fortunately, a nonprofit group caught up with AT&T's shenanigans and held their feet to the fire.

"Nah, We Don't Have To Do That..."

As part of FCC-mandated conditions under which AT&T was allowed to acquire DirecTV in 2015, the telecommunications conglomerate created the "Access from AT&T" program, offering discount Internet access to low-income households. The program consists of tiered services - download speeds of 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $10 per month, 5 Mbps for $10 per month, and 3 Mbps for $5 per month.

The company is required to enroll households in the fastest speeds available, but a significant amount of low-income families don't qualify because the fastest speed AT&T offered to their home is 1.5 Mbps download. The problem, created by AT&T's own lack of infrastructure investment in certain neighborhoods, allowed AT&T to dodge their responsibility under the terms of the DirecTV acquisition by simply denying enrollment to households with speeds less than 3 Mbps. Trouble is, some one noticed.

NDIA In Cleveland, Detroit

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) realized the scope of the problem when they attempted to help families in low-income neighborhoods in Detroit and Cleveland sign up for Access from AT&T. In addition to discovering that residents could only obtain 1.5 Mbps download speeds, NDIA found that AT&T denied these households enrollment because their speeds were too slow. The only other option for ineligible households was AT&T’s normal rate for 1.5 Mbps service, which is six times the cost of the Access program.

Loopholes: All Lawyered Up And Nowhere To Go

By diving through a cavernous loophole, AT&T cleverly manipulated the terms of the merger order and single handedly squelched the intended purpose of the program. According to the directive, AT&T “shall offer wireline Broadband Internet Access Service at speeds of at least 3 Mbps, where technically available, to qualifying households in the Company’s wireline footprint for no more than $5 per month.”

AT&T’s repeated unwillingness to invest in infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods precluded residents from living in neighborhoods where 3 Mbps download was technically possible. Yet, the corporate giant used lack of speed availability to justify denying Internet access discounts for those who need it the most. It's amazing Randall Stephenson doesn't get dizzy from all that circular reasoning.

Unfortunately, this technicality didn’t just affect a few households on the fringe of AT&T’s service area: according to data from the FCC, 21 percent of census blocks in Detroit and in Cleveland have Internet speeds of 1.5 Mbps or less. Unsurprisingly, these blocks include mostly low-income households in inner-city neighborhoods.

Don't Mistake Us For Philanthropists

Because these households can't partake in the program, NDIA asked AT&T to extend their $5 per month offer to households with 1.5 Mbps speeds. While 1.5 Mbps is considerably slower than the program’s slowest speed, and far from the FCC’s broadband goal of 25 Mbps, AT&T would not budge. It took the corporate giant a month to reply:

“AT&T is not prepared to expand the low income offer to additional speed tiers beyond those established as a condition of the merger approval.”

logo-NDIA.jpg

NDIA Director Angela Siefer detailed the exchange in a post, writing

“AT&T's response is very unfortunate for tens of thousands of households in the company's 21-state service territory who may need affordable Internet access the most, but who happen to live in places – both city neighborhoods and rural communities – where AT&T has failed to upgrade its residential service to provide reasonable speeds.”

Bad Press Has A Purpose Sometimes

After a significant amount of bad press, AT&T reversed its original stance. AT&T spokesman Brett Levecchio was quoted in CNN Money:

"We're currently working to expand the eligibility process of Access from AT&T to the 2 percent of our home Internet customers unable to receive Internet speed tiers of 3 Mbps and above."

Siefer replied by pointing out that 2 percent of all AT&T customers still equates to 250,000 people, typically concentrated in low-income neighborhoods where the only Internet access available is the same slow technology found in Cleveland and Detroit. She wrote in a follow-up post:

“Some are already paying AT&T full price for their slow connections, while many others can’t afford Internet at all—and still won’t be able to, unless the Access speed threshold is lowered. Both groups will benefit from AT&T’s change of heart...We look forward to learning more about AT&T’s plans to extend Access from AT&T to these households, and to working with our local affiliates to maximize the program’s contribution to digital inclusion in their communities.”

Eliminate the Digital Divide - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 218

After his daughter asked how her classmates could do their school homework if they did not have a computer or Internet access at home, Pat Millen's family formed E2D - a nonprofit organization called Eliminate the Digital Divide. This week, Pat and I talk about their strategy, which was created in the footprint of North Carolina's municipal MI-Connection but is now expanding through Charlotte and working with incumbent operators.

E2D has arranged an innovative and replicable program to distribute devices, provide training, and arrange for an affordable connection. Along the way, they developed a sustainable funding model rather than merely asking people with deep pockets for a one-time donation.

An important lesson from E2D is the richness of opportunity when people take action locally. That is often among the hardest steps when success is far from assured - but these local actions are the ones that can be the most successful because they are tuned to local needs, assets, and culture.

Read the transcript of this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 30 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."

Comment Highlights: Proposed HUD Rule To Expand Low-Income Residential Internet Access

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently asked for comments about a proposed rule to expand low-income access to high-speed Internet. The regulations would require building owners to install high-speed Internet infrastructure in HUD-funded multi-family rental housing during new construction or substantial rehabilitation, improving Internet access by promoting competition. Because the Internet infrastructure is not owned by one company, many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can compete to provide residents with better options.

A variety of individuals and groups provided feedback for HUD, including local governments, nonprofit advocacy groups, ISPs, and professional associations. The majority of comments support HUD’s proposed rule, with many encouraging HUD to go further in their efforts to close the digital divide.

We submitted comments with Next Century Cities to articulate the importance of having reliable Internet access in the home:

Although Internet access may be available at schools, libraries, and other locations away from home, families with children - in particular single-parent households - face barriers to accessing those facilities. There is no substitute for having high quality home Internet access, where all members of a household can use it with privacy, security, and convenience. This high quality Internet access is what our organizations work with mayors and local leaders to achieve for residents and businesses everyday, which is why we feel so strongly about the proposed steps to close the digital divide and allow more residents to connect online.  

HUD correctly notes that installing telecommunications equipment during major rehabilitations or as units are being built creates an opportunity to ensure high quality access without significantly adding cost to the project. The ongoing benefits from high quality Internet access certainly dwarf the one-time low cost of installing appropriate technology. --Next Century Cities and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Promote Competition

Google Fiber discusses the importance of infrastructure to access, suggesting that HUD could take further steps to ensure choices are available to multi-family housing residents:

...HUD should expressly prohibit the public housing agencies (PHAs) and landlords supported by its programs from unreasonably interfering with the right of any multifamily rental housing resident to request or receive installation, operation, maintenance, or removal of a broadband service from a provider.  --Google Fiber

Comments submitted by Eric Null highlight the benefits of open access networks for lower-income families who are forced to pay high rates when there is no competition. Null’s submission represents the comments of several public interest groups including New America’s Open Technology Institute, New America’s Resilient Communities Project, New America’s Education Policy Program, Benton Foundation, Center for Rural Strategies, National Hispanic Media Coalition, and Public Knowledge:

Open access networks are critical in traditionally underserved areas where a dearth of choice has led to higher prices and fewer choices for consumers. Allowing any internet service provider to service new and substantially renovated buildings would increase the number of competitors and lower the barriers to entry for new providers, forcing providers to compete for customers by reducing pricing and improving offerings. --Eric Null, on behalf of several public interest groups

conduit-multi-color.jpg

The City of Seattle also highlights how infrastructure can support competition and discusses ways to provide quality, reasonably priced service:

Local housing providers should be enabled with options to provide the best, lowest cost service to residents as possible. The two primary means to do this are to 1) enable multiple competitive providers, or 2) enable the housing provider and residents to aggregate purchasing and delivery of service. To do this there either needs to be sufficient conduit and wiring from the entry point to each unit, or to a central distribution managed distribution system where either a single best provider can be selected or multiple providers can offer service through the building distribution system. --City of Seattle

Encourage Fiber For Future-Proof Connectivity

The National Association for County Community and Economic Development’s comments about the proposed rule suggest HUD encourage fiber service and negotiate with ISPs for service agreements:

When requiring the build-out of broadband infrastructure in HUD-funded multifamily rental housing the agency should seek methods to incentivize the highest level of broadband service, such as fiber service, to ensure the ability to keep pace with the increasing needs of connection speeds… we believe a significant opportunity exists to utilize HUD’s negotiating power to secure competitive broadband service agreements from providers. Aggregating demand among HUD-funded buildings and properties could potentially yield lower service rates for low- and moderate-income renters. --National Association for County Community and Economic Development

Funding

Comments from The National Housing Conference encourage HUD to consider broadband infrastructure to be an eligible expense for multifamily affordable housing developments:

HUD has made good strides in clarifying that broadband is an eligible expense, like the recent guidance on broadband in HOME, CDBG, and the National Housing Trust Fund. HUD should continue these efforts for all multifamily development programs. Building on these initial steps, HUD should explore treating cost-effective basic broadband as a standard operating cost for affordable housing properties... Put more simply, if use of a program requires a property to install broadband infrastructure, the funds provided by that program should also be allowed to cover the cost. --National Housing Conference

Other comments support HUD’s interest in Internet expansion, but disagree with the way in which HUD is promoting low-income access. A few Public Housing Authorities and professional associations state their concerns with HUD creating an unfunded mandate; however, the estimated cost for broadband infrastructure is only $200 per unit and the construction occurs during significant rehabilitation or new construction. 

To read full comments from organizations listed above as well as other comments, view the docket here.

Community Connections - Terry Huval from Lafayette, Louisiana

"We Speak French, Eat Crawfish, and Have the Fastest Broadband in the World." 

Terry Huval's fascination with fiber started with the fiber on his fiddle strings, so it's pretty appropriate that he regailed Christopher with his skills during this Community Connections episode. 

In the previous episode you heard from former Mayor, Joey Durel about overcoming controversy and Lafayette's LUS Fiber.

In this episode, Huval emphasizes why ownership is so important for cities to control their fiber infrastructure. He also touches on the other benefits of the public fiber network: faster response for outages, better connectivity for public safety and traffic control, and more than $13 million in cost savings for residents and businesses!

We hope you enjoy!

Community Connections - Joey Durel: Lafayette, Louisiana

The city of Lafayette, Louisiana had an export problem. For years they had seen their young people become educated and move away from the small city, but local leaders like Joey Durel listened to experts like Terry Huval when they encouraged him to look into building a citywide fiber network.

In this video Christopher Mitchell interviews Joey Durel, former City-Parish President of Lafayette, Louisiana. In 2009 Lafayette Utilities System installed infrastructure for a fiber telecommunications network called LUS Fiber. The network provides digital cable, telephone service, and high-speed Internet to all households in Lafayette.

In the video, Durel emphasizes the hidden benefit of controversy when building advanced Internet networks: controversy educates the public. When local leaders are able to "think outside the box" and encourage discussion and debate, they are much more able to educate their constituents and in turn, make change. 

 

 

Community Connections - Jason Hardebeck, Baltimore

Residents and businesses in Baltimore have been dealing with poor access for years. In 2015 the city's mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake named a 27-member task force to address the problem and has spoken out about the need for more investment.

In this episode of Community Connections, Christopher Mitchell caught up with Broadband Coordinator Jason Hardebeck to talk about about his city's challenges and opportunities.

Hardebeck is tasked with developing a strategy that puts his city's residents and businesses first. These challenges are familiar to many cities across the United States and this interview serves as a good illustration of why owning some conduit and dark fiber can be a big benefit to cities as they try to solve the problem of the digital divide. 

 

Mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina: Local Leadership a Must!

High-speed Internet access can bring new industries, reinvigorate rural communities, and provide educational opportunities. We know the importance of high-speed Internet, and no one should be left behind because of the cost of service. In December, 44 city leaders joined together through Next Century Cities to push for reform of a national connectivity program called “Lifeline”- among them was Mayor Jennifer Roberts.

In February on NextCity.org, Mayor Roberts of Charlotte, North Carolina, wrote that it’s the duty of local leaders to advocate for an end to the digital divide. 

Whose eCity?

Charlotte is known for its banking industry and the growing financial technology sector, but Charlotte’s small businesses are pushing innovation in the local economy. Google recognized the community's small business culture when it bestowed an “eCity” award on Charlotte based on the strong online presence of local small enterprise.

While some sectors of the economy prosper, others flounder trying to compete. Without affordable, high-speed Internet access, there’s a major impact on every aspect of a small business. In a previous story, Catharine Rice of CLIC-NC explained how small businesses need high-speed uploads in order to do business and stay competitive. Mayor Roberts described the stark reality of the digital divide:

“The lack of Internet access can also stymie potential small businesses by cutting off the resources needed for research and development as well as hamstringing sales and marketing efforts that are often conducted after hours and on weekends. With customer connectivity being king in the Internet age, far too many small businesses, particularly ones owned by women and minorities, struggle to make the connections necessary for success.”

Access, But No Service

Mayor Roberts highlighted how community leaders must not only empower business leaders of today, but also those of tomorrow. She detailed some of her plan to address the homework gap - students without adequate Internet access trying to get by in increasingly digital learning environments. 

According to WBTV, about 70,000 students in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District do not have a computer with Internet service at home. Many families explained that the cost was too expensive. The FCC 2016 Broadband Report noted that everyone in Mecklenburg County (of which Charlotte is the seat) should have access to high-speed Internet options. The report suggests it’s not the lack of Internet access, but lack of affordability, that is holding these children and communities back. 

Local Leaders Must Take the Lead

Mayor Roberts joined the letter to the FCC on modernizing its Lifeline connectivity program for low-income folks, yet she still recognized that national programs can only do so much. City leaders must empower their communities in seeking local solutions to the digital divide.

She touched on Google Fiber coming to Charlotte, but only to emphasize the importance of local leadership:

“We also have to continue pursuing public-private partnerships with companies like Google, which plans to build out fiber connections in Charlotte, and make sure that new offerings don’t just reinforce existing inequities.”

Municipal networks, such as in Salisbury and Wilson, North Carolina, are inherently accountable to their communities, but public-private partnerships can also benefit local communities (for example, see Westminster). As Mayor Roberts noted, however, these partnerships must include local leadership to ensure that these projects serve the whole community.

Mayor Roberts ended her piece on NextCity.org with this charge to other mayors and city councils:

“As municipal leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure that the promise of technology reaches all corners of our cities.”

FCC Modernizes Lifeline Program

The FCC seemed to agree, acknowledging the problems of the digital divide that kept low-income folks from reliable Internet access. In a 3-2 vote at the end of March, the FCC approved measures to modernize the Lifeline program to subsidize Internet access for low-income households. In doing so, the FCC recognized the concerns that the many city leaders, including Mayor Roberts, had highlighted in their Next Century Cities letter.

Affordable, high-speed Internet access is crucial for 21st century communities, and, as Mayor Roberts carefully laid out in her NextCity.org piece, local leadership is necessary to advance solutions.

Santa Monica's Muni To Help Bridge The Digital Divide

Earlier this month, the Santa Monica City Council met to approve rates for the city's Digital Inclusion Pilot Program. The program is already in place, bringing free Gigabit per second (Gbps) Internet access to computers in community rooms in ten affordable housing complexes. The March 1st vote expands the program to offer residents the opportunity to sign up for services in their homes.

According to the Santa Monica Mirror, official monthly rates are set at $69 for 1 Gbps and $360 for 10 Gbps. People receiving Public Assistance will be able to obtain a discount to lower the rates to $48 and $252 per month respectively. An additional FCC Lifeline subsidy for those who qualify will lower the cost further to $38.25 per month for 1 Gbps Internet access. Download and upload speeds are the same.

Staff at the city established the rates for the pilot after studying rates in other markets where Gigabit access is available including Chattanooga, Lafayette, and Google Fiber. In order to support adoption in lower income households, city staff analyzed discounts that typically apply for other utilities and suggested a 30 percent discount for those actively participating in those programs. This approach does not exclude the elderly or households without school age children, one of the criticisms of Comcast's Internet Essentials. The staff report is available at the city website.

The Council approved a resolution, which also included construction funding of $175,000 for the project.

“In a global economy, any competitive edge we can offer our community is a worthy venture,” Gary Carter, Santa Monica City’s Community Broadband Manager told The Mirror.

“Santa Monica is uniquely positioned to collaboratively innovate as a community to fully leverage the technology of a cutting edge fiber optic network.” 

Long Time Coming

The Digital Inclusion Program is one part of Santa Monica's 1998 Telecommunications Master Plan, which included the development of its municipal fiber network CityNet. Their network started as an I-Net, used exclusively for government functions, then over time the city expanded to offer dark fiber and lit services to businesses and anchor institutions. We covered the city's public investment in 2014 when we wrote about their incremental approach to fiber deployment in our case study, Santa Monica City Net: An Incremental Approach to Building a Fiber Optic Network. The community received a number of awards and recognitions over the years, inspiring other communities to carefully plan out a strategy with a Master Plan.

Learn more from Jory Wolf, CIO at Santa Monica, who spoke with Chris in Episode #90 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. 

One Touch Make Ready and Wireless Innovation in Louisville - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 193

When we asked Ted Smith, Chief Innovation Officer of Louisville, Kentucky, to join us for episode 193 of the Community Broadband Bits Bits podcast, we expected to talk about the one touch make ready policy they had enacted (and AT&T has since sued to stop). We did, but we ended with a focus on how networking is already improving the city.

We start off by focusing on the problem of adding new fiber networks to existing poles (many of which are owned by telephone company incumbents that are not particularly inclined to make life easy for new competitors). One touch make ready simplifies the process, resulting in many benefits for communities in addition to lowering the cost to build new networks. We explore that topic to start.

But at the end of the discussion, Ted and I discuss what Susan Crawford has termed a responsive city approach - Louisville is using all kinds of network attached devices to improve city services in some of the lowest income neighborhoods.

Read the transcript from this show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 26 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

Albany, New York Studying Internet Access Needs

The city of Albany, New York (pop. 100,000) recently hired a consulting firm to study the high-speed Internet needs of the community, including possibly the municipality building its own fiber optic network.

The study will, among other things, “assess the strengths and weaknesses of Internet access currently available in the city,” according to a city news release

According to Albany officials, an estimated 30 to 50 percent of children in Upstate New York communities live in households that cannot afford broadband service in their homes.

The Albany study will also “investigate the extent of a digital divide in Albany that prevents some residents from getting fast and affordable Internet service at home or elsewhere,” and “recommend a prudent path, including funding opportunities, to ensure the City has a broadband network that is affordable and provides high-speed Internet access for all.”

Albany expects the consultant to complete its work before this summer. The Albany Community Development Agency is contributing $20,000 toward the study with the city pursuing additional funding.  

We asked officials at Albany City Hall if the feasibility study will include the city possibly building its own municipal network.  An official from Albany’s Broadband team responded, “The language in the broadband feasibility study purposely did not include specific solutions.” But, they added, “One of options certainly could be a municipal fiber network.”

Affordable Internet Service a Problem

In a January 22, 2016 press release, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan said: 

 “Whether you’re a student or a business owner, we live in a world where high speed connections are essential to success. This study will provide the lay of the land of broadband in Albany and outline how we can move broadband service forward in a cost-efficient and timely manner, making sure we bridge any digital divide that prevents residents, especially schoolchildren, from getting affordable and fast broadband access.”

Study Follows Working Group Initiative 

The city’s study comes in the aftermath of work from Albany’s Broadband Initiative Working Group, which is comprised of representatives from the Albany Public Library, the Downtown and Central Ave BIDS, the City School District of Albany, Green Tech Charter School, the Albany Housing Authority, the Albany Promise, and the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany, as well as business leaders, according to the city. 

Councilman Still Seeking Commission

Despite the new feasibility study, Albany Councilman Judd Krasher told us he is still pursuing his ordinance proposal to form a city commission comprised of residents whose specific charge would be studying the feasibility of the municipality building its own high-speed Internet network. Krasher contended Mayor Sheehan’s Working Group really hasn’t given much consideration to a municipal built and owned network. 

logo-twc.png

“I believe that Internet access is a necessity for people and not a privilege,” Krasher said. “For many people, it (Internet access) is out of reach.” 

Krasher suggested Albany might want to participate with one or more neighboring towns to build and operate a joint municipal high-speed Internet network.  His commission proposal comes out of frustration with Albany’s existing Internet service.

“Time Warner has a monopoly,” Krasher said.  “I don’t know any of my constituents who are happy with their customer service and pricing. They are not pleased with what they are getting from Time Warner.”

Internet speeds in Albany are also lackluster, with the average download speed just a shade over 20 Megabits per second (Mbps), Krasher said. And there are wide pockets of areas in Albany where upwards of 50 percent of poor residents cannot afford to have any Internet service, he said. In Albany, about 30 percent of the city’s population is black with 8 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian. 

Major Gaps Exist in New York’s Internet Service  

This latest news from Albany comes as major gaps persist in high speed Internet access in many parts of New York. Previously, MuniNetworks.org reported that FreeNet, Albany’s free wireless network, received a $625,000 state grant in 2009 earmarked to expand its service. But neither FreeNet nor Time Warner Cable and Verizon, the two biggest providers of broadband service in Albany, provides the fast, affordable, reliable connectivity a municipal fiber-based network could provide. 

We also noted that at hearings last year before the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC), political leaders and consumers from the cities of Poughkeepsie, Buffalo, and Bethlehem expressed particular frustration with Verizon’s unwillingness to build its FIOS (a FTTH) fiber service out to underserved parts of New York. In some cases they asked the state’s Public Service Commission to strengthen regulations and require private companies to bring better Internet service statewide.

Across his state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has set a goal of bringing broadband to all New Yorkers by 2018.