A home in the Audubon Park neighborhood of northeast Minneapolis that has been remodeled by federal agencies pays $50 a month to CenturyLink for Internet service with speeds of up to 80 Mbps.
Not far away, in an unrepainted neighborhood, the same $50 CenturyLink buys high-speed internet with speeds of up to 200 megabits per second.
Similar differences are found in other Minneapolis neighborhoods as well as cities across the country, according to released data and analysis Via The Markup, a non-profit tech news organization. But the nonprofit found that Minneapolis had “one of the most striking disparities” among the 38 US cities examined.
“Previously red-lined addresses offered about eight times the worst deals as previously best-rated areas” in Minneapolis, the report said. The group’s analysis focused on CenturyLink in Minneapolis, the provider with the most fiber service in the city, but did not compare service offerings among other providers in the city.
In cities across the country, people living in homes in redline areas got worse internet deals in dollars per megabit, according to the nonprofit, which analyzed more than 800,000 internet service offers from AT&T, Verizon, EarthLink and CenturyLink. It found that “all four routinely offer high base speeds of 200 Mbps or more in some neighborhoods at the same price as connections of less than 25 Mbps in others.” The FCC defines broadband as 25 Mbps or more.
Redlining was a government-backed effort to segregate black families in certain neighborhoods deemed “undesirable” by the now-defunct Homeowner’s Loan Corporation. Although the practice was outlawed in 1968, the effects remain, affecting home ownership, education, and other quality-of-life issues.
In formerly redesigned areas of Minneapolis, the high cost of Internet service or frustration with the options available mean some residents don’t go there.
A Star Tribune analysis of American Community Survey data from 2016-20 found that households in previously planned areas of north and central Minneapolis had the lowest percentages of broadband cable, fiber, or DSL subscriptions and the highest percentages without Internet service. These trends extend to historically “yellow line” areas, or those rated “C” by the homeowner loan company as another warning against investing.
In Hennepin County, data shows more than 21,000 people have computers at home but no internet.
The Affordable Connectivity Program, the FCC’s program that provides low-income families with $30 a month for Internet service and $75 a month for families on eligible tribal lands, helped Tia Williams and her four children afford home broadband for the first time this year. Before she knew about coupons, her family relied on Wi-Fi and shared Wi-Fi hotspots in her Uptown apartment. After school, everyone wanted to use the Internet at the same time.
“It was really stressful, honestly, not having access to the Internet,” Williams said. “It affected a lot of different things for my family.”
Markup’s findings were disappointing but not surprising to Minneapolis IT director Dana Nybo, who hears tech concerns from community members through the city’s 311 system.
“I think COVID has created a real accurate account of what we need to do to really support people in the community,” said Nebo. “Everybody probably 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 already have.”
As a decades-old CenturyLink customer, LaToya White was offered $45 a month home for 500 Mbps Internet download speed as part of a “price for life” plan. But when she ran her most recent internet speed test, she said, the meter wouldn’t go above 48mbps.
The low speed makes it difficult for her family to do activities that many take for granted: working from home, watching a show, doing homework. When the pandemic sent the White kids home from school, she said, they relied on the hotspots to get their work done.
“One uses the cell phone, one uses the little box,” said White, who lives in a former redline district in northeast Minneapolis. “My family’s live streaming is hard. You can’t get Netflix and Hulu on.”
During the turmoil following the killing of George Floyd in 2020, Ini Augustine saw how life-threatening the digital divide can be when people need real-time safety information. Augustine started Project Nandi, a nonprofit organization that provides families with laptops, internet and tech support, when society was hit hard by disruptions and distance learning during the pandemic.
“This is a structural issue,” Augustine said. “This is not a white-and-white problem or even a technology problem. There are structural barriers built into the system that they take advantage of, that prevent people from getting high-speed internet.”
Over the past two years, Augustine has worked with more than 200 families, including some whose jobs or health have been affected by it. Missed work or telehealth appointments due to slow internet speeds.
The companies “sold people a service they were told was high-speed, but that wasn’t the case,” Augustine said. “They gave people access depending on where they lived, and they relocated people who were in poor communities. In my opinion, they owe these people cuts, and they owe these people compensation.”
CenturyLink, which was renamed Lumen Technologies in 2020, said in an email that the company does not engage in discriminatory practices, such as redlining. Spokesperson Mark Molzien said Lumen does not enable services based on race or ethnicity and noted its participation in affordability 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 Connection Program, which offers a $30 per month discount on Internet service,” Molzen said in an email.
Other providers cited home density in their decisions and cited the high cost of maintaining older equipment used for slower speeds, according to Markup.
In March, the FCC announced Investigating digital discrimination After President Joe Biden’s 2021 infrastructure and jobs bill asked the agency to combat digital discrimination and promote “equal access to broadband across the country, regardless of income level, race, ethnicity, religion or national origin,” according to a press release.
Minneapolis, Hennepin County, and the 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 experimenting with software to install antennas on school and district property in low-contact areas and take advantage of the affordable connectivity program.
Nebo said digital navigators will soon be on the ground all over town — in schools or public housing, for example — meeting residents who struggle with Internet access.
Augustine dreams bigger. She envisions someday creating a broadband network for the black-owned community.
Internet access people, nonprofit leaders, and other community members gathered Thursday to learn about digital stocks and the history of other cooperatives across the country.
“We allow Internet service monopolies because the Internet is not a tool 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.”