As the digital revolution continues to evolve, the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” continues to persist in what former Secretary of State Colin Powell coined a “digital apartheid.”
The Internet and broadband connectivity has become the backbone of society. Commerce, political engagement, health care, communication—such as making free international calls via Internet, education, job applications, company promotion, news and much more are all moving to the online information superhighway. But while some are on the fast lane, too many are forced to traverse by foot and donkey-cart speeds. And, that connectivity divide—usually among poor, rural and Black and Brown communities, who have zero or merely subpar access to the marvels of digital technology and the Internet—can create permanently marginalized individuals who lack the skills and tools to navigate successfully in an increasingly globalized, knowledge-based society, experts say.
“You cannot function at a high level in our digital age if you don’t have broadband,” said Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America. “As more and more of daily life goes on the Web, then being left behind becomes worse and worse. We have a good 20 percent of the nation that is at least two generations behind. And in cyberspace 20 years is an eternity. So you have permanently disadvantaged communities.”
Some advocates believe that like sociopolitical apartheid, the digital divide is being perpetrated by the deliberate exclusion of certain communities on the basis of geography, race, ethnicity and income from the deployment of advanced information/telecommunication technology, a practice they term “digital redlining.”
Follow The Red Line
Redlining was a term coined in the 1960s to describe the practice of denying or charging more for service to persons in certain communities—usually Black, inner-city neighborhoods—no matter how qualified the individual. The term originated since banks—then the most infamous perpetrators—would draw a red line on a map to delineate the areas they would not serve.
The discriminatory practice devastated those communities, spreading blight, until community activist groups raised a loud enough outcry to prompt legislative action. Congress passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 and Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, which outlawed redlining and forced those private companies to reinvest in the communities they had previously shunned.
But the battle of discriminatory service was not over. Enter “electronic redlining.”
During the early 1970s advocates fought to ban cable redlining—ensuring communities of color and other disadvantaged communities got the same terms, condition and levels of service. The response was federal legislation, the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984—which expanded upon the 1934 Communications Act—in which Section 621 bans redlining, saying local franchising authorities “shall assure that access to cable service is not denied to any group of potential residential cable subscribers because of the income of the residents of the local area in which such group resides.”
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the fight moved to the telephone industry—people in poor and minority communities were either not being connected, were getting inferior service or were paying for advanced services such as call waiting, call forwarding and three-way calling though they were often the last to receive the actual connections. The poor quality of service was particularly detestable, many experts and advocates said, since Blacks and Latinos were generally spending more on telephone services than Whites.
A noted example of the battle between industry and activists was the attempt by Ameritech—a consortium of four Regional Bell Operating Companies or “Baby Bells”—to create “video dialtone” networks in the early 1990s. The Federal Communications Commission voted in July 1992 to allow local telephone companies to create the VDT networks, which offered users access to a number of advanced options through their telephones. But civil and consumer groups challenged Ameritech’s VDT deployment plan, saying it showed stark patterns of by-passing minority, low-income and rural communities. For example, Cooper, of the Consumer Federation of America did an analysis comparing census information to maps and other documents local phone companies submitted to the FCC along with their applications. The results showed that in at least two areas, entire counties were circumvented in favour of more affluent counties, Cooper said at the time. In the DMV (D.C., Maryland and Virginia) for example, Bell Atlantic sidestepped the District and Prince George’s County, Md. – both of which have large minority populations – in favor of wealthier suburbs in northern Virginia and Montgomery County, Md. The companies denied the charge that they were redlining, pointing to factors such as the presence of other competitors. Eventually, they dropped the proposals.
Beginning in the early ‘80s, policymakers began to respond to concerns about the disconnect in phone services. In 1985, the FCC under President Reagan created Lifeline, a discounted phone service for low-income qualifying customers. About 10 years later, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which provided regulation for telephone, cable and other telecommunications. The law opened the industry to competition while also banning redlining and advancing the principle of universal service.
It codified the concept—which has its roots in Postal Act of 1792—by establishing the Universal Service Fund (USF) and mandating that “consumers in all regions of the Nation, including low-income consumers and those in rural, insular and high-cost areas should have access to telecommunications and information services.”
America—and the world at large—is now at a new informational and communications technology frontier. But, public interest groups contend, technological progress seems to come with the same old social problems à la the digital divide and redlining.
“I thought we’d never have to fight this battle again,” said David Honig, president emeritus and general counsel for the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC).
In 2002, for example, the Denver Business Journal reported that AT&T Broadband faced a class-action lawsuit in southern Florida for allegedly failing to provide or overcharging for broadband services in African-American neighborhoods. “Only 1 percent of eligible African American households have access to high-speed broadband Internet service as opposed to 100 percent of eligible white households,” the suit claimed. AT&T Broadband denied the claims.
Then in 2004, when SBC Communications (now AT&T Corp.) announced its Project Lightspeed, a plan to invest billions of dollars in a fiber-optic network that would provide high-speed Internet and cable TV services, media justice activists cried foul at the company’s professed plan to cherry-pick customers. During a briefing with investors and analysts, SBC officials presented a bar graph that outlined its plans to deploy the new services to only 5 percent of “low-value customers” while targeting 90 percent of high-spending customers. That is the definition of digital redlining, advocates said.
“This is another discriminatory scheme disguised as technological progress by SBC,” said the Rev. James L. Demus III, co-director of the Ministerial Alliance Against the Digital Divide (MAADD), at the time. “These so-called investment proposals by SBC come with one fat string attached: no franchise agreement, and thus no requirement to invest in an entire community versus only the wealthy parts.”
Now, some are questioning the roll-out of Google’s Fiber.
The fiber-optic data network offers speeds at more than 100 times the current standard—more than 1,000 megabits per second compared to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2010 broadband standard of 4 megabits per second—directly to homes, businesses and public access buildings. “It’s the difference between driving a Ferrari on the German Auto-bahn where there is no speed limit versus a skateboard on a dirt road,” as telecommunications analyst Bruce Kushnick, executive director of the New Networks Institute, once described the disparity between advanced and increasingly obsolete broadband technology.
The inherent opportunities of Fiber and similar offerings—bandwidth that can more efficiently handle all the technology in new-age homes, innovation, entrepreneurship, entertainment and more—have many people excited. In fact, Kansas City, Mo., which won a national competition to be the first Fiber-connected city, has been dubbed “Silicon Prairie” because of the resulting influx of tech entrepreneurs.
“Kansas City has become an attractive spot for the next generation of entrepreneurs and workers,” said Mayor Pro Tem Cindy Circo, who spearheaded the effort to bring Fiber to the city.
Fiber’s deployment is based on a build-to-demand model—cities are divided into “fiberhoods” that are mostly based on local neighborhood definitions, and service is only offered to fiberhoods that meet sign-up quotas. Households interested in receiving Fiber have to pay a $300 installation fee and monthly rates of $120 for gigabit Internet and TV and $70 for Internet only. Google also offers a slower service (5 megabytes per second) free of charge for seven years—after a $300 installation fee that could be paid in $25-per-month installments for 12 months.
In Kansas City, initially, lower-income, majority-minority neighborhoods were left out as they failed to meet sign-up goals. And, advocates accused the Internet giant of cherry-picking “Cadillac” customers, further digitally polarizing the city’s residents.
“Google’s proposed plan to build a fiber-based broadband Internet network in Kansas sounds great in a press release, but as Missourians are quickly learning, the devil’s in the details,” said Keith Robinson, president of the St. Louis, Mo., A. Phillip Randolph Institute, in a letter to the editor, published Aug. 17, 2012, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The article failed to mention that Google will be ‘Google-lining’ — building and serving largely the wealthier communities that can afford to pay its substantial up-front fees and de facto redlining less-privileged communities…. Google’s own online ‘Fiberhood Tracker’ looks like the kind of redlining plan that banks used to draw, favoring the affluent and leaving the poorer and minority communities in the cold.”
Google and its supporters denied the charge of redlining and defended its market-based approach to Fiber’s deployment, saying it makes faster, better broadband more affordable—thus addressing the digital divide—and that it empowers communities to choose for themselves.
“It was not a package that left people out. It was able to be tailored to every neighbourhood and household if they so chose,” Circo, the Kansas City official, said.
Blair Levin, executive director of the Gig.U project, a group of research university communities seeking to accelerate next generation networks in their communities to support economic and educational development, and head of the committee that wrote the 2010 National Broadband Plan for the FCC, also argued the economic merits of Google’s plan to do a selective build-out based on demand.
“The accusation of redlining ignores the social contract underlying the telephone and cable networks (incumbent Internet service providers). For both, government granted a monopoly in exchange for a universal network build-out requirement. Those companies enjoyed decades of official protection from competition; circumstances that made the economics of the obligation work,” he said. “Governments did not, however, apply such build-out requirements to new entrants, as that would have killed investments in new competition. Google is a new entrant, with no monopoly advantages. To claim fairness requires a universal build-out ignores the advantages the incumbents had for decades.
“Claiming ‘fairness’ also ignores economics,” Levin continued. “As we saw with the data from the National Broadband Plan, these networks are staggeringly expensive. Breaking free from the status quo requires both creative and viable economic models. After all, the broadband operators are businesses, not charities. If communities do not work to lower barriers to entry and enable efficient builds, the necessary new investment simply will not happen.”
In Kansas City, Google sent employees door-to-door and worked with community groups to help spread the adoption of Fiber in the lower-income neighborhoods that had not initially shown the qualifying level of demand. It also worked with local nonprofits that teach digital literacy and sell cheap computers.
However, an October 2014 Wall Street Journal survey of Fiber-adoption in several lower-, middle- and higher-income neighborhoods in Kansas City showed a persistent disparity. The survey of six low-income neighborhoods found that just 10 percent of residents had subscribed to Google’s gigabit service, and an additional 5 percent use the slower version. Contrastingly, 42 percent of the residents in the five proximate middle-income and wealthier neighborhoods had signed on for the gigabit service, and an additional 11 percent took the slower version.
The conclusion drawn by WSJ—one echoed by Google representatives—is that the gaps in digital inclusion are less about where broadband is deployed—redlining—and more about people not seeing the importance of the Internet or not being able to use it.
In an October 2014 blog, Google Fiber’s head of community impact, Erica Swanson, cited research by the Pew Center for Research, which showed that 34 percent of people who don’t use the Internet don’t yet see it as relevant to their lives, and 32 percent point to usability as an obstacle.
“This gets to the core of problem for digital inclusion–not the lack of affordability, but the lack of digital skills and relevance for too many people. On that front, Google Fiber is a plus,” Levin said. “What we have seen in Kansas City is that by making digital inclusion a topic du jour, Google’s fiberhood rallies helped mobilize resources and attention to address the tough issues holding back progress.”
Certainly education is a key component to closing the digital divide, media justice advocates said, but they’re not buying that market-based plans that deploy advanced broadband services only to those communities that meet certain “pocketbook” criteria aren’t actually widening the digital gap. And as poorer—usually Black and Brown—communities are relegated to having second-class or no Internet access, the effects will be devastating, they said.
“If you multiply what happened in Kansas City by 200… we would have a replication of what happened in the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy—second-class citizenship was institutionalized [among those who lacked the tools to survive in the new economy],” said Honig. “Here we are the middle of another major transition, from an industrial to the digital age in which the baseline of technology will be super-fast broadband. And communities of color are being relegated to second-class citizenship again.”
Bridging the chasm between the digital “haves” and “have-nots” is a challenging undertaking given the underlying fundamental causes, advocates say.
“The digital divide is a reflection of larger social and economic divides,” said Tracy Rosenberg, executive director of Media Alliance, a California-based non-profit dedicated to media justice.
The CFA’s Mark Cooper agreed, saying political and economic forces in the U.S. either resist or do not promote “democratic egalitarianism.”
“The lack of universal service is endemic to market capitalism,” Cooper said. “Profit-making principles mean that lower-income neighbourhoods that do not generate high demand would not get the service.”
American policymakers have long recognized the inherent disparities of capitalism and have enacted policies to counteract them. For example, universal service policy was instituted to ensure everyone, regardless of income, had access to mail, telecommunication and media services, he said.
A similar type of “New Deal” policy that recognizes “that access to communication is a fundamental human right” needs to be developed for broadband to address issues such as digital redlining, Cooper argued.
Rosenberg agreed that broadband service providers should be classified as “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act, thus attaching universal service obligations.
“The idea that treating the Internet as a public utility is some wild, fringe, socialist craziness is unfounded because we treated many other utilities in that way and they made society better,” she said. “The Internet is not a luxury product; it is an essential fabric of the economic structure, and people who are locked out due to economic hardship are placed at a disadvantage, and it costs us all in the end.”
Not all media justice advocates, however, agree that reclassifying broadband as a universal service is the way to go. In a September letter to the FCC, a coalition of 45 national groups representing minority interests said redefining broadband could chill investment and innovation and undermine efforts to close the digital divide.
“The primary downside of using Title II in this context would be its negative impact on investment in broadband networks, which in turn would undermine broadband adoption by communities of color and ‘investment in local infrastructure and jobs,’” the letter read.
The group, instead, enjoined the FCC to address issues such as digital redlining and the digital divide by using its authority under Section 706 of the Telecom Act, which empowers the agency to “determine whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion” and to “take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability” if it is found to be deficient or disparate.
The FCC recently acknowledged Congress’ mandate when it increased the benchmark definition for “advanced communication” or broadband from 4 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps.
The new standard reflects society’s changing needs. For example, 4 Mbps is less than the recommended bandwidth to stream a single HD video, so such a connection would hardly accommodate the simultaneous broadband demands of a single family.
“In 2015, taking turns to share the Internet bandwidth is as absurd as taking turns to use the electricity,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a Jan. 29 statement.
In updating the definition, Wheeler said, it was clear that “advanced communication” was not being deployed to all Americans.
“For starters ‘advanced’ means at the forefront, cutting-edge. It doesn’t mean average or the happy medium,” he said. Yet, 17 percent – about 1 in 6 Americans – don’t have access to 25 megabit broadband. “Despite the billions in network investment, progress in deployment of faster networks to underserved areas is too slow.”
“Too many Americans still lack access to the broadband speeds to support the very technologies that promise to be both life altering and life-saving,” added FCC Commissioner Minyon Clyburn, “… especially those who are low-income Americans, living on Tribal lands and in rural communities. This is unacceptable. And we must do more.”
The FCC seems poised to redefine broadband as a vital service that should be covered under Title II, a move championed by the Obama White House.
“For almost a century, our law has recognized that companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access in and out of your home or business,” President Obama said in an official statement. “It is common sense that the same philosophy should guide any service that is based on the transmission of information — whether a phone call, or a packet of data.”
The president also championed the idea of community broadband networks that provide needed competition in the market, which several media justice advocates see as another viable solution to addressing the digital divide.
“But here’s the catch. In too many places across America, some big companies are doing everything they can to keep out competitors. Today in 19 states, we’ve got laws on the books that stamp out competition and make it really difficult for communities to provide their own broadband,” Obama said in a Jan. 14 speech in Cedar, Iowa, which created its own community gigabit broadband network. “So today, I’m saying we’re going to change that. Enough is enough.”