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At the beginning of the pandemic, we did a lot of reporting on how the internet is everything, and how your access to it — or lack thereof — can shape how you learn, how you work and whether you can get ahead in this economy.
But a recent investigation from The Markup, a nonprofit newsroom, suggests we’re still pretty far away from equitable access.
Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams recently spoke with Leon Yin, an investigative data journalist at The Markup and one of the authors of “Dollars to Megabits: You May Be Paying 400 Times as Much as Your Neighbor for Internet Service.”
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Leon Yin: We found that four major providers were charging the same price for drastically different speeds, and that the people who are paying the worst deals tend to live in areas that are lower income, majority people of color and also from historically redlined areas.
Kimberly Adams: That seems like a pretty shocking and sweeping generalization. Was this really showing up in all of these cities?
Yin: That’s right, we collected a representative sample of each of these cities by putting in addresses into the websites of these providers and getting back the cheapest and oftentimes the fastest rates. And we found this to occur in about 38 different states. And in 36, of those, we found disparities between who was given fast and slow internet.
Adams: And it wasn’t just disparities in the speed of the internet, there was also some weird stuff happening with pricing, according to your reporting.
Yin: That’s right. When you look at the cost per megabit per second, certain households are paying about 400 times as much for internet. And this tended to fall on lower-income communities, those that had more people of color, and also historically redlined areas.
Adams: Can you give me a concrete example of what that looked like?
Yin: Sure. So Kansas City [Missouri] is a city that is historically segregated north to south on Troost Avenue. When we looked at addresses in the side that’s traditionally the white side, they tended to be fiber speeds, right? So that’s like 200 megabits per second or higher from AT&T, for $55. When you look at the other border that was traditionally segregated to people of color, we found mostly slow speeds that were so slow, that the [Federal Communications Commission] doesn’t even consider it to be broadband. We found that, you know, you could walk three blocks, and the speeds would be completely different as with the demographics of the area.
Adams: But for the same price?
Yin: For the same price.
Adams: What did that mean in terms of impact for the residents of these communities, especially during the pandemic, when so many of us were learning and working remotely?
Yin: So we talked to residents all over the place. Someone in Detroit who is working on their thesis and could not attend classes. They couldn’t go to virtual church events. We talked to a council person in Las Vegas who [said] speeds are so slow that students could not attend their classes either.
Adams: But what about this argument that some of these service providers make that it is really expensive to expand access to high-speed broadband, and that, frankly, in some of these low-income communities, they’re not going to make that money back, and so they have to charge more?
Yin: We actually tried to control for many of these business factors like population density, the number of competitors, the existing broadband adoption rates of those areas. And we tried to see if the disparities that we observed were eliminated if we counted for those factors. And in most cases, they did not.
Adams: The FCC has this program, the Affordable Connectivity Program, where people who are lower income can have access to subsidized or sometimes even free internet access. How did that play into your findings, and also how these internet service providers are thinking about how they connect communities?
Yin: So we found that they don’t tell you if you qualify for these programs or not. You’re expected to go to a government site and separately apply for that subsidy. And when you do, it goes directly to the provider.
Adams: I should point out when we heard back from AT&T, the company spokesperson pointed out that one of the examples you use in your story, an extended internet outage in one of the communities you reported on — Hope Village in Detroit — was due to a flood and ongoing equipment theft. How do you account for these kinds of variations of bad weather and crime, frankly, in your reporting on this?
Yin: So although this did affect the internet reliability of Hope Village and the community there, it did not affect the underlying data, which is across these 36 different cities, including Detroit, we still found that these areas were given the slowest speeds for the same price as faster speeds in more affluent and whiter parts of town.
We reached out to AT&T, Verizon, EarthLink and Lumen Technologies, the company that owns CenturyLink. Below are statements from AT&T and Lumen, who responded before our deadline.
We do not engage in discriminatory practices like redlining and find the accusation offensive. While we can’t comment on behalf of other providers, we can say we do not enable services based on any consideration of race or ethnicity and the methodology used for the report on our network is deeply flawed. We are committed to helping close the digital divide and actively participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program, which offers a discount of $30 per month on Internet service and in the Lifeline program, which offers a discount of $9.25 per month on voice service, to help make these services more affordable for qualifying households.Mark Molzen, Lumen Technologies Inc.
The Markup’s analysis is fundamentally flawed as it clearly dismisses our participation in the federal Affordable Connectivity Program and our low-cost Access from AT&T service offering. Eligible consumers can receive free internet service when combining the $30 federal subsidy with our low-cost option. Upward of 40% of households are eligible for the program. We’ve run a broad campaign to market and sign-up eligible customers for the ACP. Our outreach includes direct customer communications, traditional and social media promotion and participation in community events. Any suggestion that we discriminate in providing internet access is blatantly wrong.Jim Greer, AT&T
The Markup team also included the responses it received from the companies in its story.
I was talking with Leon Yin about the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program. If you are eligible for government assistance like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, Women, Infants and Children, or a bunch of other income-based programs, you probably also qualify for internet subsidies.
In case you want to see if there are similar disparities in your community, The Markup has a GitHub repository with data for dozens of cities.
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