I am the last person to deny anyone a good snarky gloat. So while I don’t agree entirely with AT&T’s policy blog post taking a jab at reports of Google Fiber stumbling in deployment, I don’t deny they’re entitled to a good snarky blog post. (Google, I point out, denies any disappointment or plans to slow down.) “Broadband investment is not for the feint hearted,”
But the irony faeries love to make sport. The following week National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) had a blog post of their own. Using the publicly available data from the FCC’s Form 477 Report, NDIA showed that in Cleveland’s poorest neighborhoods (which are also predominantly African American), AT&T does not offer wireline broadband better than 1.5 mbps DSL – about the same speed and quality since they first deployed DSL in the neighborhood. This contrasts with AT&T’s announcement last month that it will now make its gigabit broadband service available in downtown Cleveland and certain other neighborhoods.
Put more clearly, if you live in the right neighborhood in Cleveland, AT&T will offer you broadband access literally 1,000 times faster than what is available in other neighborhoods in Cleveland. Unsurprisingly for anyone familiar with the history of redlining, the neighborhoods with crappy broadband availability are primarily poor and primarily African American. Mind you, I don’t think AT&T is deliberately trying to be racist about this. They are participating in the HUD program to bring broadband to low-income housing, for example.
There are two important, but rather different issues here — one immediate to AT&T, one much more broadly with regard to policy. NDIA created the maps to demonstrate that a significant number of people who qualify for the $5 broadband for those on SNAP support that AT&T committed to provide as a condition of its acquisition of DIRECTV can’t get it because the advertised broadband in their neighborhood is soooo crappy that they fall outside the merger condition (the merger requires AT&T to make it available in areas where they advertise availability of 3 mbps). Based on this article from CNN Money, it looks like AT&T is doing the smart thing and voluntarily offering the discount to those on SNAP who don’t have access to even 3 mbps AT&T DSL.
The more important issue is the return of redlining on a massive scale. Thanks to improvements the FCC has made over the years in the annual mandatory broadband provider reporting form (Form 477), we can now construct maps like this for neighborhoods all over the country, and not just from AT&T. As I argued repeatedly when telcos, cable cos and Silicon Valley joined forces to enact “franchise reform” deregulation in 2005-07 that eliminated pre-existing anti-redlining requirements – profit maximizing firms are gonna act to maximize profit. They are not going to spend money upgrading facilities if they don’t consider it a good investment.
Again, I want to make clear that there is nothing intrinsically bad or good about AT&T. Getting mad at companies for behaving in highly predictable ways based on market incentives is like getting mad at cats for eating birds in your backyard. And while I have no doubt we will see the usual deflections that range from “but Google-“ to “mobile gives these neighborhoods what they need” (although has anyone done any actual, systemic surveys of whether we have sufficient towers and backhaul in these neighborhoods to provide speed and quality comparable to VDSL or cable?) to “just wait for 5G,” the digital inequality continues. I humbly suggest that, after 10 years of waiting and blaming others, perhaps we need a new policy approach.
More below . . .