Detroit residents, and others in poor, less white areas across the country get the worst internet deals
Four major internet providers disproportionately offered the worst deals to neighborhoods across the U.S., including Detroit, that are poorer and have a higher concentration of people of color than other parts of their cities. That's according to an investigation by The Markup, a nonprofit newsroom focusing on technology's impact on society. Formerly redlined areas also received the worst offers.
The Markupexamined internet offers to nearly 1 million addresses in 38 U.S. cities. People in disadvantaged neighborhoods would be offered plans as high as $100 per megabit per second, while those in more affluent areas that have more white residents and the best historic redlining scores were offered plans for less than $1 per Mbps.
The effect of these practices went beyond fairness: Those in disadvantaged neighborhoods were offered speeds so slow they were denied the ability to participate in remote learning, jobs and even family connection and recreation that are ubiquitous to modern life.
The Markup collected nearly 850,000 internet service offers made between April and October on nearly 1 million addresses in 38 cities across the country, including Detroit. The topline finding is that four companies — AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink and EarthLink — offered blazing fast internet plans (200 Mbps download speeds or above) at the same price they offered slow internet plans (under 25 Mpbs, which is below the Federal Communications Commission's floor for labeling a connection as "broadband").
Some researchers have looked at broadband availability, and one, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, published a report saying some internet providers were advertising varying speeds for the same price, which it called "tier flattening." The Markup's investigation is the first examination of actual offers to U.S. addresses, which were gathered from the providers' look-up tools.
Some of the pricing disparities were extreme. CenturyLink's offers ranged from $100 per megabit per second (for 0.5 Mbps plans) all the way down to 25 cents per megabit per second (for 200 Mbps plans) in all 15 cities The Markup examined.
The federal government does not regulate internet pricing, so providers can charge whatever they want.
However, the FCC is currently engaged in rulemaking around "digital discrimination," which could potentially create restrictions around this type of behavior.
The Markup used automated techniques to enter millions of addresses across 45 major U.S. cities into each of the four internet service providers' websites, and to save the advertised speed and price for the cheapest plan for each address.
Cities that offered uniform speeds (Baltimore, New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Providence, Rhode Island, and Wilmington, Delaware) were filtered out.
The remaining offers in 38 cities were merged with socioeconomic data: median household income, race/ethnicity from the 2019 five-year American Community Survey, and historic redlining grades from the University of Richmond's Mapping Inequality project.
In 90% of the cities The Markup examined, including Detroit, the areas offered the worst deals were lower-income. In two-thirds of cities, the worst deals went to the least white areas. In every city where there was enough data to do the analysis, the worst deals went to areas that had been historically redlined.
The Markup found at least one of these disparities (income, race/ethnicity or historical redlining grades) in every city except for Boise, Idaho, and Fargo, North Dakota.