Digital Redlining: Understanding the Digital Divide

Many families in marginalized communities (the same areas that were historically redlined by banks)struggled with getting their children internet access or access speeds appropriate for online learning during the pandemic. 

Excerpt from CNET

When Christina Wilson moved into Los Angeles public housing with her husband and teenage daughter four years ago, she tried to transfer her internet service plan to her new home. But, as is the case with many low-income communities in the US, the ISP didn't serve the Housing Authority of Los Angeles' Imperial Courts. In fact, no internet service providers offered speedy plans for any of LA's public housing facilities. Instead, they only offered pricey, slow plans insufficient for today's needs.Digital Divide

So the 45-year-old relied on her smartphone's T-Mobile connection for anything she wanted to do online, while her daughter used her phone as a hotspot to attend her virtual film school classes. The mobile devices had unlimited data but came with caveats.

"What we found out with unlimited data is it's still limited because they slow your internet down," Wilson said. "If my daughter's online, doing school, it's terrible waiting all that time."

Broadband expansion programs such as Comcast Internet Essentials are a baby step to narrowing the gap for low-income neighborhoods to get access to essential digital services and resources. Comcast offers 2 free months of free broadband access and a monthly $9.95 plan for qualifying families. In addition to this, the federal Emergency Broadband Benefit program offers temporary financial assistance to new and existing customers in qualified households to cover the entire cost.

What is the Emergency Broadband Benefit?

The Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) is a temporary subsidy program from the Federal Government designed to help low-income households connect to the Internet and stay connected during the pandemic. Qualified households can receive a temporary monthly credit of up to $50/month (up to $75/month for customers in Tribal lands) toward their Internet service and leased Internet equipment until the program's funding runs out.

Room for Improvement 

The vast majority of our nation's internet infrastructure is in the hands of private sector companies. Internet service providers in California invest millions deploying next-generation high-speed internet networks in wealthy neighborhoods while ignoring low-income communities of color. (greenlining.org)

To provide high-speed broadband, there are fiber optic trunk lines installed across the US, and from there, other cables branch out. Fiber is fast and pretty much limitless in capacity, but it is also expensive to install. Big providers, when deciding where to invest the money to upgrade their networks, often focus on wealthier parts of cities. Because fiber connections are expensive, Internet Service Providers are hesitant to expand unless they expect a return on their investment. As a result, poorer communities often have no internet or are stuck with slow, older networks that can’t meet today’s technological demands.

As of February this year, Comcast doubled the download speeds for its Internet Essentials low-income broadband program from 25 megabits per second to 50 megabits per second after the company faced criticism from students and legislators. Comcast has also sped up its goal to launch more than 1,000 Lift Zones, community centers where students can use high-speed internet for virtual learning, by more than a year and aims to have them running by the end of 2021.

While there is much more to do to bring digital equity to marginalized communities, the government and our communities recognize that we can and should do better and are slowly taking the steps to get there.

For more information about the practice of geographical redlining, specific to San Francisco and the Bay Area, see Redlining and Gentrification | Urban Displacement Project.