NDIA defines digital redlining as “discrimination by internet service providers in the deployment, maintenance, or upgrade of infrastructure or delivery of services. The denial of services has disparate impacts on people in certain areas of cities or regions, most frequently on the basis of income, race, and ethnicity.”
KC Digital Drive was recently invited to participate in a listening session hosted by the FCC Taskforce to Prevent Digital Discrimination in Topeka to help them define digital discrimination, which will likely expand on the digital redlining definition. This task force is charged with “creating rules and policies to combat digital discrimination and to promote equal access to broadband throughout the U.S., regardless of ZIP code, income level, ethnicity, race, religion, or national origin.”
In late-2020, we stood up the Internet Access Support Program, which was funded by Johnson County CARES Act funding as well as philanthropic dollars to serve the rest of the KC region and pre-dated ACP’s predecessor, the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. Since its inception, we’ve provided up to $75/month for internet service for six months and $225 to cover a past-due balance to nearly 1,200 low-income households in the KC region over the last almost three years.
As we’ve administered that program, we’ve collected hundreds and hundreds of internet bills and talked to hundreds of clients about their experience with internet service and their internet service provider, which has been an enlightening experience. Here are just a few stories that have stuck out to us over the years.
Clients indicate they are pressured to get bundles they don’t need and sometimes don’t even know they have. One woman who needed to sign up for internet service was practically in tears when she called back to protest that she really wasn’t trying to get us to pay for her cable but that it seemed nearly impossible to get standalone internet service from the provider she contacted based on her interaction with a very insistent customer service representative. Other times, clients have reported they didn’t even know they had phone service bundled with their internet and were surprised to learn that they did since they had never used it and didn’t need it because they had a cell phone.
In some parts of our region, the only service available was outdated and obsolete DSL service. When the provider phased out the service, they were left with no other options. Some of these households are now being served by fixed wireless, which works fine for those who are close to the tower but for others, it can be difficult to connect if you’re farther away and your neighbors are also using an already weak signal, despite the advertised speed of 100 Mbps.
While these are individual examples, some marketing practices can contribute to affordability challenges to large numbers of households. Promo prices that would make a plan “free with ACP” are only available to new customers of one ISP, meaning low-income households that are current (and possibly long-time) customers are paying significantly higher prices for the same exact plan. Broadband “nutrition labels” proposed to help consumers better understand the actual price of their internet service offered by larger ISPs must be available by April 10, 2024. The FCC is overseeing this effort and states, “Access to accurate, simple-to-understand information about broadband internet access services helps consumers make informed choices and is central to a well-functioning marketplace that encourages competition, innovation, low prices, and high-quality service.”
Access to affordable, robust broadband internet service is one of the five elements included in the National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s definition of digital inclusion. At KC Digital Drive, we think of digital inclusion in a broader sense and break it down into the following five components:
- Network Capacity—Or the physical broadband infrastructure. This is generally not an issue for most of the Kansas City region, but Kansas City was one of the case study cities for an article by The Markup that highlighted digital redlining, particularly by one of the nation’s largest ISPs. As the Missouri and Kansas Offices of Broadband Development continue their BEAD planning, it’s important to review the plans to expand broadband infrastructure in the states and participate in their public comment process. You can stay updated on the Missouri plans here and review the Kansas BEAD plans here.
- Access to the Network—This “accessibility and affordability” dimension takes into account the situation of the individual user and household and their ability to take advantage of the infrastructure and quality service level that is made available to them. It includes things like having a computer in the home, understanding how to get service (and the right service), maintaining connectivity through obstacles, and of course, the ability to pay for service (or understand who and when alternative access models are needed). An investment in digital navigator programs could help customers pick the best plan for their household. This is also where renewing the ACP or supporting another subsidy program could come in.
- Quality of Network Access—This dimension reflects the myriad additional layers between the underlying fundamental infrastructure (e.g., fiber network or cellular antennas) and the experience individual users (residential, commercial, tourist, etc.) have with access to connectivity. This is also where service quality comes in—do the speed tests show service that matches the advertised speed? If not, is it possible an outdated router or device is the issue? Replacing equipment regularly and providing remote or in-home troubleshooting support for customers to determine the source of the poor network access quality could help resolve this common issue. This may also include retrofitting multi-dwelling units to be able to provide in-unit service to match the quality of underlying infrastructure.
- Participation in Digital Life—This aspect covers how people use the internet and digital tools. To help increase the number of people in the digital economy, ISPs could invest in digital skills and device subsidy programs, internet safety and other ways to increase participation in digital life. The Missouri Digital Equity Act plan is forthcoming, but you can review and provide comments to the Kansas Digital Equity Act plan here.
- Excellence, Innovation, and Growth—Although this may seem out of the realm of digital inclusion, a holistic approach to a broadband, connectivity, and digital equity agenda ought to include some consideration of what the end state looks like in these areas in absolute terms and also how we want to consider equity in their pursuit.
We stand ready to assist local communities in preparing for the unprecedented funding soon to be available through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Look for a white paper on our Agenda for Broadband Connectivity and Digital Equity with our recommendations for how to bridge the digital divide in this historic time soon.