A home in the Audubon Park neighborhood of northeast Minneapolis, once demarcated by federal agencies, pays CenturyLink $50 a month for internet service with speeds of up to 80 Mbps.
Not far away, in a neighborhood that hasn’t been delineated, that same $50 at CenturyLink buys high-speed fiber internet with speeds of up to 200Mpbs.
Similar differences have been seen in other Minneapolis neighborhoods as well as cities across the country, according to data released and analyzed by the nonprofit The Markup. But Minneapolis has “one of the most striking disparities” among the 38 U.S. cities surveyed, the nonprofit found.
“Formerly underlined addresses were offered the worst deals almost eight times more often than formerly higher rated areas” in Minneapolis, according to the report. The group’s analysis focused on CenturyLink in Minneapolis, the provider with the most fiber services in the city, but did not compare service offerings among other providers in the city.
According to the nonprofit, which analyzed more than 800,000 internet service offerings from AT&T, Verizon, EarthLink and CenturyLink, in cities across the country, people living in homes in red-lined areas got worse internet deals in dollars per megabit. It found that “all four consistently offered fast baseline speeds of 200 Mbps or more in some neighborhoods for the same price as sub-25 Mbps connections in others.” The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband as 25Mpbs or higher.
Redlining was a government-backed effort that segregated black families into particular neighborhoods deemed “undesirable” by the defunct Home Owners’ Loan Corp. – the problems of life.
In formerly gated areas of Minneapolis, the high cost of internet service or frustrations with available options means some residents simply go without.
A Star Tribune analysis of American Community Survey data from 2016 to 2020 found that households in formerly demarcated areas in north and central Minneapolis have the lowest percentages of cable, fiber, or wireless subscriptions. ‘ADSL and the highest percentages without Internet service. These trends are spilling over into historically “yellow” areas, or those rated “C” by the Home Owners’ Loan Corp. as another warning against investing.
In Hennepin County, more than 21,000 people have computers at home but no internet, the data shows.
The Affordable Connectivity Program, an FCC program that provides low-income families with $30 per month for internet service and $75 per month for households on eligible tribal lands, has helped Tia Williams and her four children s to offer home broadband for the first time this year. Before she learned about the vouchers, her family relied on Wi-Fi and shared hotspots in her Uptown apartment. After school, everyone wanted to use the Internet at the same time.
“It was really stressful, honestly, not having internet access,” Williams said. “It affected a lot of different things for my family.”
The Markup’s findings were disappointing but not surprising to Minneapolis CIO Dana Nybo, who hears community members’ tech concerns through the city’s 311 system.
“I think COVID has created a really precise calculation of what we need to do to really support people in the community,” Nybo said. “Everyone might have thought, ‘Oh, we have internet access’, and we realized, what does that really mean? And what do you really need versus what you actually have?
As a CenturyLink customer for decades, LaToya White’s household was offered $45 a month for 500 Mbps of Internet download speed as part of its “Price for Life” plan. But when she took her last internet speed test, she said, the meter would go no further than 48 Mbps.
The low speed makes it difficult for his family to do activities many take for granted: working from home, watching a show and doing homework. When the pandemic sent White’s children home from school, she said, they relied on hotspots to do their jobs.
“We use the cell phone, we use the little box,” said White, who lives in a formerly cordoned off block in northeast Minneapolis. “Streaming for my house is difficult. You can’t play Netflix and Hulu.”
During the unrest following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, Ini Augustine saw how the digital divide could even be life-threatening when people needed real-time security information. Augustine started Project Nandi, a nonprofit that provides families with laptops, internet and tech support, when the community was hit hard by unrest and remote learning during the pandemic.
“It’s a structural problem,” Augustine said. “It’s not a black-and-white problem or even a technology problem. There are structural barriers built into the system they’re taking advantage of that prevent people from getting high-speed internet.”
Over the past two years, Augustine has worked with over 200 families, some whose jobs or health have suffered due to missed work or telehealth appointments due to slow internet speeds. .
The companies “sold people a service that they were told was high-speed, but it wasn’t,” Augustine said. “They gave people access based on where they live and put people who were in poor communities in red. In my opinion, they owe those people discounts and they owe those people refunds .”
CenturyLink, which renamed Lumen Technologies in 2020, said in an email that the company does not engage in discriminatory practices, such as redlining. Spokesperson Mark Molzen said Lumen does not allow services based on race or ethnicity and noted its participation in affordability programs. The company did not respond to follow-up questions.
“We are committed to helping bridge the digital divide and actively participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides a $30 per month discount on internet service,” Molzen said in an email.
Other service providers cited household density in their decisions and noted the high cost of maintaining older equipment used for slower speeds, according to the markup.
In March, the FCC announced a digital discrimination investigation after President Joe Biden’s 2021 Infrastructure and Jobs Bill required the agency to address digital discrimination and promote “the equal access to broadband nationwide, regardless of income level, ethnicity, race, religion or national origin,” according to a press release.
Minneapolis, Hennepin County and Minneapolis Public Schools are partners in a coalition focused on improving access to digital tools and literacy programs for economically disadvantaged residents and residents of color. To reach them, they are piloting programs to install antennas on school and county properties in low connectivity areas and leveraging the Affordable Connectivity Program.
Soon, digital navigators will be on the ground across the city — in schools or public housing, for example — to meet with residents struggling to access the internet, Nybo said.
Augustin dreams bigger. She envisions one day creating a black-owned community broadband network.
People who have struggled with internet access, nonprofit leaders and other community members gathered on Thursday to learn about digital equity and the history of other cooperatives across the country.
“We allow monopolies for Internet service because the Internet is not considered a public service as it should be,” Augustine said. “It should be like water. If you want to be a citizen of the modern world, you need high-speed internet. Otherwise, you’re automatically a second-class citizen.”
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