A home in the Audubon Park neighborhood of northeast Minneapolis, once placed in the red by federal agencies, pays CenturyLink $50 a month for Internet service with speeds of up to 80 Mbps.
Not far away, in a neighborhood that hasn’t been marked down, the same $50 at CenturyLink buys high-speed fiber Internet with speeds up to 200 Mpbs.
Similar differences were found in other Minneapolis neighborhoods and cities across the country, according to data released and analyzed by the nonprofit tech news organization Markup. But Minneapolis has “one of the most striking disparities” among the 38 U.S. cities it surveyed, the nonprofit found.
“Previously reported addresses were being offered the worst deals nearly eight times as often as previously top-rated areas” in Minneapolis, the report said. The team’s analysis focused on CenturyLink in Minneapolis, the provider offering the most fiber service in the city, but did not compare service offerings with other providers in the city.
In cities across the country, people living in homes in red areas had worse Internet deals in dollars per megabit, according to the nonprofit, which analyzed more than 800,000 Internet service offerings from AT&T, Verizon, EarthLink and CenturyLink . It found that “all four routinely offered high basic speeds of 200Mbps or greater in some neighborhoods for the same price as sub-25Mbps connections in others.” The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband as 25Mpbs or more.
Redlining was a government-backed effort that segregated black families in particular neighborhoods deemed “undesirable” by the now-defunct Home Owners’ Loan Corp. Although the practice was outlawed in 1968, the impacts remain, affecting home ownership. home, -problems of life.
In previously confined areas of Minneapolis, the high cost of Internet service or frustrations with available options mean some residents simply do without it.
A Star Tribune analysis of data from the 2016-20 American Community Survey found that households in the previously delimited areas of north and downtown Minneapolis have the lowest percentages of cable, fiber or DSL broadband subscriptions, and the highest percentages without Internet service. These trends spill over into areas historically “marked yellow,” or those rated “C” by Home Owners’ Loan Corp. as an added warning against investing.
In Hennepin County, more than 21,000 people have computers at home but no internet, data shows.
The Affordable Connectivity Program, an FCC program that provides low-income families $30 a month for Internet service and $75 a month for families on eligible tribal land, has helped Tia Williams and her four children afford broadband maid for the first time this year. Before she learned of her coupons, her family relied on Wi-Fi and hotspots in her shared apartment building in Uptown. After school, everyone wanted to use the internet at the same time.
“It’s been really stressful, honestly, not having access to the internet,” Williams said. “It influenced a lot of different things for my family.”
The Markup’s results were disappointing but not surprising to Minneapolis director of information technology Dana Nybo, who listens to community members’ technology concerns through the city’s 311 system.
“I think COVID has created a really accurate reckoning 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 does that really mean? And what do you really need versus what you actually have.”
As a CenturyLink customer for decades, LaToya White’s family was offered $45 a month for 500Mbps of Internet download speed as part of their “Price for Life” plan. But when she ran his latest Internet speed test, he said, the meter wouldn’t go above 48Mbps.
The slow speed makes it difficult for his family to do activities that many take for granted: working from home, watching a show and doing homework. When the pandemic sent White’s children home from school, she said, they relied on hotspots to get their jobs done.
“One uses the cell phone; one uses the little box,” said White, who lives on a former block in northeast Minneapolis. “Streaming is hard for my family. You can’t play Netflix and Hulu.”
During the turmoil after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Ini Augustine saw how the digital divide could even be life-threatening when people needed real-time security information. Augustine started Project Nandi, a non-profit that provides families with laptops, Internet, and tech support, when the community was hit hard by rioting and remote learning during the pandemic.
“This is a structural problem,” Agostino said. “This is not a black and white problem or even a technology problem. There are structural barriers built into the system that they profit from, which are preventing 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 telehealth appointments due to slow internet speed.
The companies “sold people a service that they were told was high-speed, but it wasn’t,” Augustine said. “They gave access to people depending on where they live and they questioned people who were in poor communities. In my opinion, they owe those people discounts and they owe those people rebates.”
CenturyLink, which rebranded as Lumen Technologies in 2020, said in an email that the company does not engage in discriminatory practices, such as redlining. Spokesman Mark Molzen said Lumen does not enable services based on race or ethnicity and noted its participation in accessibility programs. The company did not respond to follow-up questions.
“We are committed to helping bridge the digital divide and actively participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program, which offers $30 a month off Internet service,” Molzen said in an email.
Other service providers cited household density in their decisions and noted the high maintenance cost of older equipment used for slower speeds, according to Markup.
In March, the FCC announced a survey on digital discrimination after President Joe Biden’s 2021 infrastructure and jobs bill required the agency to fight digital discrimination and promote “equal access to broadband across the country, regardless of income level, ‘ethnicity, race, religion or national origin,’ according to 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 residents and residents of color. To reach them, they are piloting programs to install antennas on school and county properties in low-connectivity areas and leveraging the Affordable Connectivity Program.
Soon, digital navigators will be on the ground all over the city, such as in schools or public housing, catering to residents who struggle with internet access, Nybo said.
Augustine dreams big. He envisions one day creating a black-owned community broadband network.
People who have struggled with internet access, nonprofit leaders and other community members gathered Thursday to learn about digital equity and the story of other co-ops across the country.
“We allow monopolies for Internet service because the Internet is not viewed as a utility as it should be,” said Augustine. “It should be like water. If you want to be a modern citizen of the world, you need high-speed Internet. Otherwise, you’re automatically a second-class citizen.”