Tales of the Sausage Factory

Stoping the 5G Digital Divide Before It Happens.

About 10 years ago, the telcos and the cablecos argued that they needed “franchise reform” to deploy fiber to the home high speed broadband. Anyone offering cable services (which, at the time, were a necessary part of any bundle including broadband — yup, times change) needs to get a franchise. At the time, all franchises were local. They also usually required the franchisee to serve the entire franchise area with same quality service. This requirement to serve the entire service area with the same quality service is called an “anti-redlining” provision. It is designed to ensure that providers of service do not avoid traditionally unserved communities (particularly communities of color), who were on the wrong side of the “red line” drawn by real estate developers to separate the whites only neighborhoods from the “colored” neighborhoods. (For more info, see this clip from Adam Ruins The Suburbs.) While we no longer have laws mandating segregation, the combination of stereotypes about urban neighborhoods dominated by people of color, combined with the unfortunate economic reality that non-whites systemically earn lower incomes than whites often means that providers simply ignore these neighborhoods when they offer services and focus investment on whiter (and wealthier) areas. Anti-redlining laws are designed to prevent that from happening.

 

To return back to the mid-00s, telecos (later joined by cable cos demanding a level playing field) pushed states to reform their franchise laws to (a) replace local franchising with state franchising; and, (b) eliminate most of the requirements of the franchise — including eliminating the anti-redlining provisions. The carriers argued that OF COURSE they intended to provide FTTH everywhere, including communities of color. But if they had to deal with local franchise authorities dictating deployment schedules and demanding all sorts of conditions to get a franchise, then — gosh darn it — they just would not be able to invest in FTTH no matter how much they wanted to do so. Although I and my then employer Media Access Project worked with the handful of local and national orgs fighting repeal of local franchises generally and anti-redlining provisions specifically, we lost bigly.

 

Today, I am once again feeling the Cassandrefreude. As predicted 10 years ago, in the absence of anti-redlining provisions, carriers have not invested in upgrading their broadband capacity in communities of color at anything close to the same rate they have upgraded in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. As a result, the urban digital divide is once again growing. It’s not just that high-speed broadband is ridiculously expensive, although this is also serious barrier to adoption in urban areas. It’s also that in many low-income and predominantly non-white neighborhoods, speeds on par with those offered in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods are not even available.

 

This problem is further compounded by the belief that we have solved the problem of urban deployment and the only places where deployment (as opposed to simply cost of access) remains an issue is in rural America. But while the problems in rural America are very real, we need to recognize that the digital divide problem is actually growing in urban areas as carriers rush to provide gigabit speed in some neighborhoods while leaving other neighborhoods in the digital dust.

 

With the focus on 5G deployment, however, we have a rare opportunity to avoid repeating past mistakes. Just once, just once, we could actually take steps to prevent the inequality before it happens.

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Posted in How Democracy Works, Or Doesn't, Spectrum, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , | Comments closed

Tales of the Sausage Factory

Cleveland and the Return Of Broadband Redlining.

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 . . .

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Posted in Series of Tubes, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , | 1 Comment (Comments closed)
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