One year ago today, NDIA and Connect Your Community released AT&T’s Digital Redlining of Cleveland, our first research report on that company’s discrimination against lower-income urban neighborhoods in the deployment of its standard fiber-enhanced broadband service between 2008 and 2014.
Based on a mapping analysis of FCC Form 477 block data and city permit records, AT&T’s Digital Redlining of Cleveland showed that AT&T had quietly ignored the service areas of four inner-city wire centers when it installed its high-speed “fiber to the node” VDSL network throughout most Cleveland suburbs and better-off city neighborhoods. The now-standard VDSL infrastructure, which combines optical fiber running to neighborhood locations with upgraded copper lines the rest of the way to customer homes, provides most AT&T households with Internet access at download speeds above 24 mpbs, as well as the option of IP video “cable” subscription service.
But residents of neighborhoods served by the four inner-city wire centers — Hough, Glenville, Central, Fairfax, South Collinwood, St. Clair-Superior, Detroit-Shoreway, Stockyards and other high-poverty areas — are still relegated to AT&T’s old, much slower copper-only ADSL network.
The result, according to AT&T’s own 2016 data reported to the FCC: 55% of of Census blocks in the city of Cleveland had maximum AT&T download speeds of 6 mbps or less, and 22% had download speeds of 3 mbps, 1.5 mbps or 768 kbps.
NDIA and CYC pointed out that AT&T was free to discriminate against these neighborhoods, and keep the practice secret, because of its success in lobbying Ohio legislators to eliminate municipal cable franchising and oversight in 2007. To quote the report:
In 2007, AT&T succeeded in lobbying the Ohio General Assembly to eliminate municipal franchising of cable television providers by dangling the promise of a new era of “cable competition” in communities throughout its service territory . . .
AT&T’s “cable franchise reform” legislation explicitly permitted providersunder the new state-run video service authorization system to serve less than 100% of their designated service territories – a provision that led critics like the City of Cleveland to warn of the exclusion of poorer neighborhood . . .
AT&T dismissed the idea that providers would redline or cherrypick communities, and legislator sapparently believed them; the legislation passed both houses with virtually unanimous support, including “Yes” votes from every Cleveland representative.
AT&T’s Digital Redlining of Cleveland got noticed. In the weeks following its release, the report was widely covered and linked on news and tech industry sites including The Hill, Buzzfeed, Grio, Ars Technica, Engadget, Gizmodo, Fierce Telecomand MultiChannel News among others. Cleveland alternative newspaper Scene made it the subject of two long, detailed articles, and the city’s local ABC news outlet, WEWS, covered it as well.
An NDIA affiiate in Dayton, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, requested a similar map of AT&T’s deployment pattern in the Dayton area and released it publicly on March 22, with the headline “AT&T Fails To Invest in Low-Income Montgomery County Neighborhoods”.
On March 15, new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told an audience in Pittsburgh:
“Just last week, a study of broadband deployment in Cleveland suggested that fiber was much less likely to be deployed in the low-income neighborhoods. This highlights the need to establish Gigabit Opportunity Zones…”
In August, an attorney representing three Cleveland AT&T customers submitted a formal complaint to the FCC citing the report and alleging that “AT&T’s offerings of high speed broadband service violates the Communications Act’s prohibition against unjust and unreasonable discrimination.”
In early September, NDIA released new maps showing very similar patterns of broadband deployment discrimination by AT&T against high-poverty neighborhoods in Detroit and Toledo. Two AT&T customers in Detroit soon joined the attorney’s FCC complaint. (The customer complaints are currently the subject of a confidential mediation process between the attorney, Daryl Parks, and AT&T.)
In late October, the FCC released its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Lifeline program, including a section on “Digital Redlining”.
“Recent reports argue that some service providers engage in “digital redlining” in low-income areas – a practice that results in certain low-income areas experiencing less facilities deployment when compared to other areas, and that low-income consumers in those areas may experience increased difficulty obtaining affordable, robust communications services… We seek comment on how the Commission can address this issue with the Lifeline program.”
Through all this, AT&T’s Digital Redlining of Cleveland has continued to be discussed and linked by the media, most recently in this Fast Company article the day before yesterday.
AT&T regulatory and stateexternal affairs executive VP Joan Marsh said:
“We do not redline. Our commitment to diversity and inclusion is unparalleled. Our investment decisions are based on the cost of deployment and demand for our services and are of course fully compliant with the requirements of the Communications Act.”
There’s nothing wrong with the report’s data or how NDIA and CYC mapped it, but after a year AT&T has made no attempt to rebut the data and maps. And after a year, there’s still no alternative explanation of how considerations of “cost of deployment and demand for our services” led AT&T to leave those neighborhoods in Cleveland — and similar high-poverty neighborhoods in Detroit, Toledo and Dayton — out of its neighborhood fiber deployment plans.
And unfortunately, after a year, we’ve heard of no plan from AT&T to demonstrate its “commitment to diversity and inclusion” by going back and building fiber into those neighborhoods it missed the first time, so the residents can finally get the speeds and quality of service that nearby suburbs have enjoyed for years.
Well… maybe next year.