By Dr. Alicia Montgomery
In an era where high-speed internet is an essential tool for education, employment, and seemingly all forms of communication, it’s critical that we eliminate the digital divide and give everyone, regardless of income or racial background, the internet access that they need to participate in today’s society. But achieving digital equity is just as much about passing laws that address inequities as it is about having responsible corporate actors that don’t discriminate against marginalized communities. That’s why it was so concerning to see a recent California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) study which found that two of our state’s leading internet providers - AT&T and Comcast - are digital redlining against low-income communities.
Digital redlining refers to when an internet service provider intentionally underinvests in low-income minority communities, assuming that they will earn higher profits in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. According to the CPUC study, both providers’ service areas across LA County suggest that they are doing just that, as “low-income households make up a disproportionate
share of those households without access to broadband service.” In AT&T’s case, these findings are especially troubling because they add to a well-documented history of discrimination against communities of color - the massive provider has redlined in various other big cities across the country, including Detroit, Dallas and Cleveland, among others.
It’s important to highlight the real life impact that these actions have on communities of color. This isn’t just about companies looking for a higher return on their investment, it’s about pivotal stakeholders that, despite claiming to be advocates for equality and addressing the digital divide, repeatedly take part in business practices that further widen the gaps in access to critical services.
The consequences of digital redlining for communities of color are severe and multifaceted. Access to high-quality education is compromised, as students without reliable internet access struggle to keep up with online assignments, research, and learning resources. Employment opportunities are limited, as the job market increasingly relies on digital platforms for job applications and remote work. Small businesses in digitally redlined communities face significant challenges in competing on equal footing with businesses benefiting from reliable internet services.
These impacts aren’t just speculative, we have seen the ways they’ve harmed communities of color as society has become more reliant on online services. One study from 2020 found that one out of every three Black, Latinx and Native American households did not have a broadband connection at home, while others have shown a direct correlation between connectivity and performance in school and beyond, as “inequalities in access [...] contribute to students performing lower on standardized test scores, such as the SAT, and being less interested in careers related to science, technology, engineering, and math.”
Communities of color already face serious disadvantages stemming from racial inequality: worse health outcomes, disproportionate impact by environmental hazards, lower rates of upward social mobility and more. Digital redlining is another insult to the injuries and disadvantages caused by systemic inequities.
When we rely on companies like AT&T to expand access to connectivity to all Americans who lack it, we shouldn’t allow them to blatantly neglect the communities that need them most because they don’t see them as a lucrative enough investment. Given their well-documented record of abuse on this front, it’s critical that our regulators and lawmakers investigate the claims against companies like AT&T and hold them accountable. Digital equity will never be achieved as long as we allow such critical actors in the internet space to continue acting in ways that widen the digital divide.