Urban Broadband Needs Upgrading, Too

Cleveland, Ohio

Cleveland, Ohio

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Digital redlining denies as many city residents access to the internet as it does rural Americans in some states, an advocacy group says.

Patchwork broadband service in urban centers often goes overlooked, given the pervasive lack of access in many rural counties, but affects “virtually equal numbers of people” in states like Ohio, said one digital equity advocate.

Bill Callahan, who runs a Cleveland-based nonprofit working to expand low-income broadband access and serves as policy director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, made the observation during a digital equity panel Monday at Next Century Cities’ Regional Broadband Summit in Pittsburgh.

In Cleveland, the high cost of broadband and poverty in some neighborhoods are just as likely to prevent residents from connecting to the internet as they are in rural America. Internet costing upward of $65 a month “might as well be on Mars for some people,” Callahan said.

Digital redlining—the practice of service providers avoiding low-income areas when investing in broadband infrastructure—is to blame, panelists said.

Callahan’s two organizations performed a mapping analysis in March 2017, using broadband availability and speed data supplied to the Federal Communications Commission by internet providers every six months. They found that when AT&T carried out its competitive deployment in Cleveland between 2008 and 2014, the provider neglected to extend broadband service to three central areas that were largely poor and black.

The study found similar results in Detroit, as well as in the Ohio cities of Toledo and Dayton.

At the time, AT&T argued the report downplayed its broadband investments given limitations with the infrastructure.

“The report does not accurately reflect the investment we've made in bringing faster internet to urban and rural areas across the U.S," a spokesman said after the report came out. "While we are investing in broadband, we’re also investing in technologies that will mitigate some of the infrastructure limitations."

Places where providers won’t go are not only stuck with cable modem service but also lack the fiber infrastructure to take advantage of fifth-generation wireless, or 5G, when it becomes available—possibly later this year.

In a keynote discussion, former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn encouraged cross-sector collaboration to make a business case for expanding broadband in both underserved urban neighborhoods and rural areas.

She said this would be politically popular across the board, recalling a conversation with a Republican politician who told her she, a Democrat, would have his support for legislation increasing broadband access if it scored high with the Congressional Budget Office.

Clyburn said the FCC is “missing a lot of potential efficiencies” expanding access while it focuses on its E-rate program, which supplies schools and libraries with broadband, and Lifeline program, which makes communications more affordable for low-income consumers.

“I think the FCC needs to recalibrate and modernize itself more,” Clyburn said.

Black women represent the fastest-growing group of U.S. entrepreneurs but are often limited to mobile-only internet with their startups, said Francella Ochillo, National Hispanic Media Coalition government and legal affairs director.

“There is a cost to keeping people disconnected,” Ochillo said.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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