Digital redlining happens when internet service providers invest less money in low-income and marginalized communities, leaving these communities with slow, unreliable broadband—or no broadband at all.
Redlined communities often pay just as much as wealthier communities for slower speeds.
A new federal law gives the Federal Communications Commission authority to create rules to counter digital discrimination.
You’ve probably heard of redlining in the context of home loans—beginning in the 1930s, people living in many communities of color couldn’t qualify for home loans from the government1 because those areas were deemed too “risky,” which was a polite way of saying “not white.” Today, many of those same communities face a new form of discrimination in our increasingly digital era—“digital redlining” or “digital discrimination.”
What is digital redlining?
Digital redlining happens when internet service providers invest less money in broadband infrastructure in low-income and marginalized communities, leaving these communities with slow, unreliable broadband—or no broadband at all. Digital redlining can be particularly detrimental to older adults who, because they may not drive, rely upon the internet for their health care and connection to the outside world.
To date, there have been numerous instances of digital redlining in communities across the nation, including Dallas, Detroit, Oakland, Kansas City, Nashville, and Atlanta. To paint the picture of what digital redlining looks like, consider what happened when AT&T digitally redlined Cleveland. Cleveland has a dramatic wealth disparity—in 2018, the city’s top 5% of earners made almost nine times the median income.2 AT&T appears to have made business decisions taking this income disparity into account. The company left the majority of high-poverty, majority-minority census blocks with older, slower internet, while upgrading internet speeds in wealthier areas.
Internet speeds are measured by how much data, in megabits of data per second (Mbps), your internet connection can transfer. Those numbers are indicated as "down" for download and "up" for upload. In Cleveland, areas with older infrastructure often had speeds of 3 Mbps down or less, while upgraded areas had download speeds of at least 18 Mbps, but up to a gigabit.
That means some communities could easily video chat with their families or doctors, while redlined communities could not.
What’s even more absurd is that redlined communities are probably paying just as much as wealthier communities for their slower connection speeds. For example, in 2018, AT&T advertised internet access offering 6-10 Mbps down and .6-1 Mbps up for $60 a month, while it also advertised 100 Mbps up/100 Mbps down speeds for... $60 a month.3 To put it simply, digital redlining means some low-income communities only have access to overpriced, slow internet, while wealthier communities have access to much faster internet for the same price.
Why do internet providers discriminate?
The practice of digital redlining is usually falsely justified based on profit. Many broadband providers are owned by shareholders and seek to make as much profit as possible to benefit them. Internet service providers incorrectly assume that serving low-income or marginalized communities will not be as profitable as serving a wealthier, often whiter, community. Studies, however, show this is not the case. According to an analysis of internet service provider Frontier, upgrading older networks to newer fiber networks could earn the company a billion dollars.
It seems it is simply easier for broadband providers to leave behind populations with less political power to do anything about it.
This inaccurate belief is harming older adults. According to the Congressional Research Service, in 2019, about 5 million people aged 65 and older lived in poverty—indicating that they are also likely to live in the low-income, digitally redlined communities.4 The substandard internet, or no internet, in redlined communities makes it difficult for adults 65 and older to access the outside world—a particular tragedy when the COVID-19 pandemic has kept many vulnerable older adults at home. For instance, internet speeds offered in Cleveland’s redlined communities wouldn’t allow for teleconferencing, preventing seniors from accessing medical care via telemedicine, or from staving off loneliness by seeing friends and family in real time. The slower connection speeds offered in Cleveland’s redlined communities would also make it difficult for multiple members of a household to connect to the internet at once.
What new law could counter digital redlining and digital discrimination?
Luckily, a new law aims to counter this by requiring the Federal Communications Commission to create rules that prevent “digital discrimination of access based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin.”5 If this law works as Congress intended, internet service providers will have to offer both rich and poor areas the same quality of internet service (not just for speed, but for other metrics, like outages), for the same price.
The FCC doesn’t have to implement this law until 2023. That means there isn’t currently a process to report digital redlining, or a way to prevent it. However, once the FCC implements these rules, we anticipate that the agency will take complaints from individuals who live in redlined communities. Stay tuned at FCC.gov.
1. Federal Fair Lending Regulations and Statutes. Fair Housing Act. Consumer Compliance Handbook. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. January 2006. Found on the internet at https://www.federalreserve.gov/boarddocs/supmanual/cch/fair_lend_fhact.pdf
2. QuickFacts. Cleveland City, Ohio. U.S. Census Bureau. Found on the internet at https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/clevelandcityohio
3. TIER FLATTENING: AT&T and Verizon Home Customers Pay a High Price for Slow Internet. National Digital Inclusion Alliance. July 2018. Found on the internet at https://www.digitalinclusion.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/NDIA-Tier-Flattening-July-2018.pdf
4. Poverty Among the Population Aged 65 and Older. Congressional Research Service. Updated April 14, 2021. Found on the internet at https://sgp.fas.org/crs/misc/R45791.pdf
5. Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (HR 3684). 117th Congress. Found on the internet at https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/3684/text