It feels like we do everything right. We buy the plan with the most megabits, get all the upgrades, and yet our network speeds are still slower than a snail. For some it’s a matter of choosing the wrong company or working with a slow device. But for those living in historically disadvantaged neighborhoods, the issue might run deeper.
Internet service providers, or ISPs, have been known to throttle their user's network speeds. They do this most commonly to reduce the load on their servers and prevent congestion. However, throttling isn’t the only way that ISPs slow down internet.
Increasingly, ISPs are coming under fire for providing inequitable internet access across zip codes, particularly targeting those that have been historically redlined.
What is Redlining?
Beginning in the 1930s, redlining was a practice used to determine which areas should and should not receive financial assistance like mortgages and loans. The neighborhoods and towns deemed “unsafe” provide these services to had their map borders drawn with red lines, giving the practice its name.
The risk factors used to determine if an area was safe enough to provide financial services to were written specifically to target low-income neighborhoods and those with predominantly Black/Latino populations. Being able to purchase a home, especially with the assistance of mortgages and loans, is key to upward mobility. By systematically denying vulnerable demographics these opportunities, millions of families were thrown into a cycle of being unable to accumulate generational wealth; a privilege that was always present for their white counterparts.
Redlining was outlawed in 1968, but the damage was already done. Previously redlined areas are still subject to higher rates of asthma, worse rates of poverty, and over-policing. Consequently, these communities often don’t receive the same public services as their wealthier and whiter neighbors. Even Amazon has come under fire for not providing equal services to neighborhoods with a majority Black population.
Broadband makes the world go round
The word broadband gets thrown around a lot, but why is it so important? Verizon defines broadband as a high-speed internet connection in accordance with FCC guidlines. In order to be considered broadband by the FCC, network speeds need to be at least 25 megabytes per second. But is that actually enough?
In most cases the answer is a resounding no. Unless you’re the only person using a network, 25 megabytes is simply not going to cut it. Streaming and video calls for example are bandwidth-heavy activities. Your network is not going to fare well if more than one person are using these services on a network with a severely low bandwidth.
Because of the FCC’s lax guidelines on what can be considered broadband, millions of Americans are left paying full price for dismal speeds.
Redlining takes a virtual turn
In a world that uses the internet for just about everything, having less than adequate access to a stable network can be devastating. For those relying on broadband for school, work, and more, having slow network speeds can’t be an option. But for many living in what ISPs determine to be less desirable neighborhoods, it isn’t a choice.
NPR’s Ailsa Chang and her guest Leon Yin discuss how ISPs are under-servicing disadvantaged neighborhoods while charging the same prices as they do for those receiving speeds up to 60 times faster. They also talk about how they get away with it.
Yin reports that some ISPs charge the exact same price for a resident in a wealthy neighborhood receiving broadband speeds of 300 megabits, while historically redlined areas can receive speeds as slow as 5 megabits for the same exact price. While the FCC has asked ISPs to fix their discriminatory practices, they aren’t finalizing their action plan to solvedigital redlining until the end of 2023.
Of course ISPs deny the inequity of their services but the data is clear; historically redlined, lower-income neighborhoods, and those with majority Black populations are receiving slower internet speeds while paying premium prices. This means while your children’s classmates have clear video and a stable connection over zoom from just one zip code away, yours is left to cope with lag and dropped calls.
Internet access as a means of success
Inequitable access to broadband internet is just another way that historically disadvantaged neighborhoods are failed by our legal system. The hope is that the FCC will come up with a comprehensive plan to remedy the issue, providing vulnerable neighborhoods with one of the most essential tools to excel in our constantly evolving digital world.
For those that need reliable access to high-speed internet the most, digital redlining is a barrier that cannot be ignored. It is up to our governing bodies to take the lead and require ISPs to deliver the same quality of service to all customers, regardless of their zip code.