A home in northeast Minneapolis’s Audubon Park neighborhood that was once closed down by federal agencies is paying CenturyLink $50 a month for internet service with speeds of up to 80 Mbps.
Not far away, in a neighborhood that wasn’t red-flagged, CenturyLink buys high-speed fiber optic internet at speeds of up to 200 Mpbs for the same $50.
Similar disparities were noted in other Minneapolis boroughs as well as cities across the country, according to data published and analyzed by the nonprofit Tech News Markup. But Minneapolis has “one of the most striking differences” among 38 US cities surveyed, the nonprofit found.
“Formerly red-rated addresses were offered the worst deals nearly eight times as often as formerly better-rated areas,” the Minneapolis report said. The group’s analysis focused on CenturyLink in Minneapolis, the provider that offers the most fiber service in the city, but did not compare the service offerings of other providers in the city.
According to the nonprofit, which analyzed more than 800,000 internet service offerings from AT&T, Verizon, EarthLink and CenturyLink, in cities across the country, people living in houses with red lines received inferior internet offerings in dollars per megabit. It found that “all four routinely offered fast base speeds of 200 Mbps or more in some neighborhoods for the same price as sub-25 Mbps connections in others.” The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband as 25 Mpbs or more.
Redlining was a government-backed measure that segregated black families into certain neighborhoods deemed “undesirable” by the now-defunct Home Owners’ Loan Corp. Although the practice was banned in 1968, the effects remain, affecting home ownership, education and other quality-of-life issues.
In formerly locked-down areas of Minneapolis, the high cost of internet service or frustrations with available options means some residents simply forgo it.
A Star Tribune analysis of American Community Survey data from 2016 through 2020 found that homes in formerly red-flagged areas in north and central Minneapolis have the lowest percentage of cable, fiber, or DSL subscriptions for broadband and the highest percentage of no internet service . These trends are propagating in historically “yellow marked” areas or those managed by the Home Owners’ Loan Corp. were rated “C” as a further warning against investments.
In Hennepin County, more than 21,000 people have computers in their homes but no internet, data shows.
The Affordable Connectivity Program, an FCC program that provides low-income families with $30 a month for internet services and $75 a month for households on qualifying tribal lands, helped Tia Williams and her four children this year to join the afford broadband at home for the first time. Before she found out about the coupons, her family relied on the Wi-Fi and hotspots of their uptown apartment building they shared. After school, everyone wanted to use the internet at the same time.
“Honestly, not having access to the internet was really stressful,” Williams said. “It’s affected a lot of different things for my family.”
The markup results were disappointing but not surprising to Dana Nybo, Minneapolis director of information technology, who hears technology concerns from community members about the city’s 311 system.
“I think COVID has created a really accurate calculation of what we need to do to really support people in the community,” Nybo said. “Everyone might have thought, ‘Oh, we have access to the internet,’ and we realized what that really means? And what do you really need versus what you actually have.”
A CenturyLink customer for decades, LaToya White’s household was offered $45 a month for 500 Mbps internet download speed as part of their Price for Life plan. But when she ran her most recent internet speed test, she said the counter wouldn’t go further than 48Mbps.
The low speed makes it challenging for her family to do activities that many take for granted: working from home, watching a show, and doing homework. As the pandemic sent White’s children home from school, they depended on hotspots to get their jobs done.
“You use the cell phone, you use the little box,” said White, who lives in a formerly red-lined block in northeast Minneapolis. “Streaming for my household is difficult. You can’t play Netflix and Hulu.”
During the unrest following the 2020 killing of George Floyd, Ini Augustine saw how the digital divide can be even life-threatening when people need real-time safety information. Augustine started Project Nandi, a nonprofit organization that provides families with laptops, internet and tech support when the community has been hit hard by civil unrest and distance learning during the pandemic.
“It’s a structural problem,” Augustine said. “This is not a black and white issue or even a technology issue. There are structural barriers built into the system that benefit them and keep people from having high-speed internet.”
Over the past two years, Augustine has worked with more than 200 families, including some whose jobs or health have suffered due to lost work or telemedicine appointments due to slow internet speeds.
Companies “were selling people a service that they were told was high-speed service, it wasn’t,” Augustine said. “They gave people access based on where they live and tagged people who lived in poor communities. In my opinion, they owe these people rebates and they owe these people refunds.”
CenturyLink, which renamed Lumen Technologies in 2020, said in an email that the company does not engage in discriminatory practices like redlining. Spokesman Mark Molzen said Lumen does not enable services based on race or ethnicity, noting its participation in affordability programs. The company did not respond to inquiries.
“We are committed to closing the digital divide and actively participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program, which offers a $30 per month discount on internet service,” Molzen said in an email.
Other service providers cited household density in their decisions, noting the high costs of maintaining older equipment used for slower speeds, according to the markup.
In March, the FCC announced an investigation into digital discrimination after President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure and Employment Act of 2021 required the agency to combat digital discrimination and “promote equal access to broadband across the country, regardless of income level, ethnic affiliation, race, religion or national origin,” says a press release.
Minneapolis, Hennepin County and Minneapolis Public Schools are partners in a coalition focused on increasing access to digital tools and literacy programs for economically disadvantaged and residents of color. To reach them, they are conducting pilot programs to install antennas on school and county lots in areas of lower connectivity and are leveraging the Affordable Connectivity Program.
Soon, digital navigators will be on the ground across the city — in schools or public housing, for example — and will meet residents struggling with internet access, Nybo said.
Augustine dreams bigger. She envisions one day creating a black-owned broadband network.
People struggling with internet access, nonprofit leaders and other community members gathered Thursday to learn about digital justice and the history of other co-operatives across the country.
“We allow monopolies for internet services because the internet isn’t seen as a utility like it should be,” Augustine said. “It should be like water. If you want to be a modern citizen of the world, you need high-speed Internet. Otherwise you are automatically a second-class citizen.”