Jun 24, 2020

Gaps in internet access: Low-income, communities of color most left out

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Infrastructure and investment matter.

All this week, Marketplace Tech is doing a new series called “The Internet Is Everything,” where we look at access, infrastructure and cost. That question of cost comes down to competition, infrastructure and whether telecom companies have invested in bringing service to where you live. 

I spoke with Mignon Clyburn, a former member of the Federal Communications Commission. She said we have to acknowledge that race and poverty play a role in where companies decide to offer access. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Mignon Clyburn (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Mignon Clyburn: If you were to go in rural areas where there is less infrastructure, less density, it is not uncommon for you to pay $150 per month for less-than-robust internet access. There are gross disparities when it comes to more affluent neighborhoods and more dense neighborhoods than there are for lower-income and rural communities.

Molly Wood: Is that mostly a function of infrastructure, or are there also competition constraints?

Clyburn: In urban communities, some of that is about redlining. There have been cases that have been shown where certain neighborhoods with more affluence, it has been shown that the infrastructure was not built, that robust offerings were not realized. I will say to you that in rural communities, it is partly a function of infrastructure. It costs more per square mile. You’re going to get less of a return on your investment, and so you do not see as much by way of infrastructure there, you see more satellite options out there, which cost more and oftentimes may not give you that robust coverage.

Wood: I really want to put a fine point on this because I think we have had conversations a lot that talk about last-mile problems and accessibility, and you’re saying that the disparity in internet access is also a reflection of social disparities?

Clyburn: Absolutely. You’re going to follow the money, you’re going to follow the “smart investment,” you’re going to follow the places where you’ve got mixed use or other businesses that you’re going to make most of your money from. Where those people live that work there, those are the places where the highest fees are going to go. But if you’re in a community where I sit, where I grew up, where it is definitely the working-class individual where they live, you’re not going to see as many options. You’re not going to see that investment, either on the roads or what is under the road or above attached to those power lines, because it has been assumed, by those, that the less affluent you are, the less likely you are going to use these advanced services. Honestly, the affluent part might be right, but in terms of use and need of use, that is totally incorrect.

Wood: When we talk about the internet as a utility, as a matter of classification, do you think that that is what is going to be necessary to essentially force companies to build out an infrastructure that’s equal for all?

Clyburn: What you have seen out of this is the price of not being connected, and using the classic business model, using the classic market-based approach, has disadvantage, not only those individuals who previously either could not afford or did not have access to the internet at home, now you’re seeing other businesses who are disadvantaged. Other educational institutions, like the colleges who don’t know who’s going to walk back into their doors or who is going to be able to sign in and sign on, you’re seeing those negative ripple effects of those businesses and educational constructs. They’re being disrupted, too, so the lack of that forward-thinking investment by the government, by private industry and by nonprofits have created or have intensified this very imperfect storm of lack of connectivity and depressed opportunities. That was always one of my biggest fears when I was at the FCC. Now it is a nightmare for millions.

Wood: How much is COVID-19 an opportunity to really look deeply at some of the policies and actions that could improve access for everyone?

Clyburn: When you see 14% of the children between 3 and 18 sheltering in place or sheltering at home but cannot complete their homework, or it’s more difficult to complete their homework assignments, when you see those with disabilities and special needs, especially those students having fewer options because they might not be connected at home, I think what this has done in a very painful way is affirm the need to move in a connected direction. What this has revealed, and in some ways accelerated for us, that being connected is a lifesaver.

Wood: This fall your former employer, the FCC, has announced they’ll spend $16 billion to provide broadband service to areas of the country that don’t have it. How much do you know about this, and how hopeful are you?

Clyburn: If you were to just look at the headlines, you will be ecstatic. It will affirm to you that the agency is investing in a connected future. But what the headlines do not tell you is that all of the tools at their disposal, they’re not being used. It is not enough simply, though this is important, to have infrastructure in the ground. You can build it to my home, to my doorstep, you can say, here it is, but if I cannot afford the monthly cost of service, then it means nothing. It does nothing for me. What the FCC has not done was to look at the Lifeline program, which seeks to directly provide an economic subsidy or assistance to those who cannot afford voice and/or broadband service. That program has effectively been gutted by this administration, and now we’re paying the price. Those who cannot afford a monthly service have no backstop. If the Lifeline program would have been allowed to expand more robustly to broadband to offer relief in terms of broadband cost, if we were allowed to reform the reforms that the previous administration put in place to allow for more competition, I am willing to bet my next breath that some of the conversations that we’re having now that are painful, that are going to be incredibly expensive, we could have avoided some of those costs.

Related interview: More insight from a listener

Today’s story comes from Ariel Smythe, who lives about 15 miles north of St. Paul, Minnesota. She’s retired, after decades of working for the state and county governments. She says she can’t afford a computer or a smartphone so has no way to access the internet at home.

“Before COVID-19 hit, I was using the computer at the public library, primarily for reading email. I’m interested in a lot of things, so I like to just surf the net and look at things I was interested in and do a little shopping, of course. It was very easy to plan to go in and read my emails, but then end up often [in] some cyberspace, just following links. Then, the libraries have been closed since March.

“I live on a fixed income with a pension and Social Security. Now, so much is dependent on the internet, where if you want any information about anything, you have to go online. There’s sometimes not even a phone number available to call. Especially now with the pandemic, learning about health care, learning about the virus. All of that is pretty much internet-based. I do think internet access should be universal. But again, if it’s like a utility and still have to pay for it, I would have to somehow work that in along with the electricity and the water and the gas, etc. Right now, there’s just not really room to do that. 

“I feel kind of isolated without internet access right now. I’m looking forward to when the library is open, and I can go back and surf and read emails and shop to my heart’s content.”

Also watching:

You heard Ariel Smythe mention affordability, and you heard Mignon Clyburn mention the federal Lifeline program. You might never have heard of it, and a lot of people haven’t, including people who need it. Lifeline is a program that helps low-income people get affordable telephone and broadband access. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the FCC has loosened eligibility restrictions so more people can apply for Lifeline services. However, some members of Congress asked the FCC in April to make it a lot more obvious to people that this program exists.

In January, the FCC implemented changes to the program that will probably reduce the number of companies that offer Lifeline services. Some analysts said that could cut off Lifeline access to some 70% of recipients — about 8 million people.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer