CenturyLink customers in Seattle and Portland receive broad levels of service at the same price, as poorer residents and people of color are more likely to bear the brunt of slow speeds, according to a new analysis of digital inequality in US cities.
Seattle has the worst disparities among the cities examined in the Pacific Northwest. About half of low-income areas are provided with slow internet, compared to only 19% in high-income areas. Slow internet service was also given to addresses in neighborhoods with a larger population of color: 32.8% of them, compared to 18.7% in areas with a larger white population.
CenturyLink’s Portland offerings were also uneven, with 27% of addresses in lower-income areas offered speeds below the federal broadband standard of 25 Mbps, compared to 16% in high-income areas. In both Portland and Seattle, neighborhoods rated as “dangerous” on mortgage lenders’ mid-20th century “red lines” maps—which were used to discriminate against minority communities—are likely to see the worst Internet deals in both cities today.
The disparities in the two largest cities in the Pacific Northwest were exposed in a national investigation this fall by The Markup, a nonprofit news outlet covering the effects of technology on society, which showed that four major Internet service providers routinely offer slower speeds to some neighborhoods for the same price. . Where higher speeds are shown in other regions. Markup analyzed service offerings from CenturyLink, Verizon, AT&T, and EarthLink at more than 800,000 addresses in the largest cities in 38 states.
Markup found income-related disparities in Seattle, Portland, and 17 other cities. In two-thirds of the cities where the news outlet had enough data for comparison, the worst deals were offered for the least white neighbourhoods.
In addition to Seattle and Portland, the worst showings in 20 other cities line past redline borders.
A spokesperson for CenturyLink’s parent company, Lumen, denied discriminatory intent and criticized The Markup’s investigation in a statement.
“The methodology used in the report I read is deeply flawed,” Mark Molzien said in an email. “We do not engage in discriminatory practices such as redlining and find the accusation offensive. While we cannot comment on behalf of other service providers, we can say that we do not enable services based on any regard to race or ethnicity.”
Comcast, the main Internet service provider for both Seattle and Portland, is not included in the analysis because it does not offer different speeds at the same price, a practice known as “tier flattening.” EarthLink also serves Seattle and Portland, but the analysis showed no evidence of income or race-related disparities.
State and local officials in Oregon and Washington expressed concern but weren’t terribly surprised by the discrepancies found in the analysis.
“I have absolutely no doubts that disparities exist in Portland,” said Rebecca Gibbons, director of strategic initiatives for the Portland Office of Community Technology.
While Comcast and one or two other providers also serve cities, new data confirms that low-income residents are stuck with the worst options, Gibbons told InvestigateWest.
“If a consumer only has one choice, it’s that they’re beholden to that level of customer service, those fees, those prices,” she said. “We would like to be as competitive as possible.”
Oregon State Representative Pam Marsh, of South Jackson County, who sits on the Oregon Information and Technology Management Joint Committee, said the results showed “clearly a calculated business decision about who gets paid for services.”
“The result,” she said, “is people being left out.”
Layer flattening is not illegal. Although policymakers at all levels agree that broadband is an essential tool for social, economic and educational empowerment, it is not regulated as a utility, like electricity. Service providers can set their own prices, and local and state authorities cannot force them to build modern infrastructure in areas that may be less profitable.
While advocates and government officials see an opportunity to provide additional input while earmarking the $65 billion in federal funding approved in the 2021 Act for investments in infrastructure and jobs, the money may not yield much relief for underserved urban neighborhoods.
Francella Occhiello, executive director of Next Century Cities, a national nonprofit advocating for affordable, reliable high-speed internet for all, said The Markup’s analysis of service providers highlights the plight of underprivileged populations.
“Companies have very strong communications staff and lobbyists to make sure you convince people that you don’t see what you see with your own eyes, but we see it with ours,” Occhiello said. “And we already have the numbers to prove it.”
But she said looking at the data is just the first step.
“We created a system that had unequal results,” she said. “If we want to get a different outcome, we’re going to have to not only examine some of the practices that got us here but dismantle them.”
neighborhoods behind it
CenturyLink’s expansion stories in Portland and Seattle closely mirror each other.
In 2015, the landline company began looking to compete in the high-speed internet market with cable companies like Comcast, which controls the bulk of it. CenturyLink has sought cable concessions and permits, officials said, and has begun building its high-speed Internet and cable infrastructure.
Just a few years into its expansion into Seattle and Portland, officials said CenturyLink’s appetite for expansion as a cable provider has been reported. CenturyLink pulled out of the Portland market in 2020, Gibbons said, and the company left the Seattle cable market in 2021, according to a spokesperson for the mayor’s office.
CenturyLink remained an active ISP, but when it stopped expanding as a cable provider, Gibbons said, “Our regulatory authority to require them to build in every neighborhood was gone.”
As a result, CenturyLink’s prevalence in both cities has led to some pretty lopsided scenarios.
In Portland, for example, two blocks north of Lloyd Center on Broadway, CenturyLink offers an office with Internet speeds of up to 15 megabits per second for $50 a month. A mile and a half southeast, in high-income Laurelhurst, residents of a house on 35th Avenue can pay $20 less per month for 200 megabits per second — a price that’s 13 times less for speeds.
During its tenure as an ISP, CenturyLink was confronted by the attorneys general of Washington and Oregon over complaints about confusing and redundant charges. In 2020, the lawsuits resulted in a $6 million payout in Washington and a $4 million settlement in Oregon.
A spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Justice said the class settlement case did not appear to violate Oregon’s Unfair Business Practices Act, and no cases have been filed against the broadband provider under that law.
State officials and advocates have acknowledged the practical factors that contribute to the disparities. Building infrastructure is expensive, and companies choose to do so in areas where they think they can make a profit on the costs.
But, Occello said, “Involuntary exclusion has a discriminatory effect, whether or not that is what you mean.
“Communities know when their students can’t go to school online, when their small businesses don’t operate with the same kind of flexibility, when they don’t have the same kind of telehealth options as everyone else.”
Lots of money, little regulations
Internet Service Providers or Internet Service Providers also cite their participation in the Affordable Connectivity Program as evidence of their commitment to promoting digital justice.
The federal program, launched in 2021 to replace the older broadband program, subsidizes internet for low-income households for up to $30 a month, or $75 for households on Indian reservations. Several different indicators of economic need can qualify a household to participate in the program, which is administered by the FCC.
Registration is low. Data from mid-2022 shows that only 27% of eligible households in Portland and Seattle have signed up for the program.
Officials have given some reasons why this might happen. Marsh, Oregon State Representative, criticized the program for being too dependent on participating ISPs as well, and Gibbons called the registration requirements “very onerous”.
Some aspects of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act indicate that the federal government is starting to take an interest in how to address digital inequalities more effectively.
For the first time, the FCC in March began soliciting comments on discrimination and digital equity including “how to implement provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that require the FCC to combat digital discrimination, and promote equal access to broadband across the country, regardless of income level, race, ethnicity, religion or national origin.”
Funding for the Infrastructure Act also creates new opportunities for states and localities to influence before funding is allocated.
In late November, the FCC published its latest broadband map. It is the primary resource that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the executive office charged with allocating funding, will use to make decisions. The map is based on self-reported data from ISPs.
“From what we’ve seen in the maps, they’re massively exaggerating what their true coverage is,” said Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit advocacy organization for digital stocks.
Between now and January, the FCC is accepting challenges from states to fine-tune the maps. The Washington Department of Commerce and Oregon Broadband Office distributed newsletters requesting public input on FCC maps, including information on how to submit challenges.
But there’s a caveat for Portland and Seattle: Despite the billions of dollars pouring in, most officials have expressed skepticism that city dwellers will see much of it.
This is because Congress first required states to spend infrastructure law money on areas that are “unserved,” or that have no broadband access at all. Neighborhoods where the ISP actually provides service, however limited, are not likely to be touched until rural and remote areas are taken care of first.
It is a sore point for city and state officials.
“Yes, rural communities where there is absolutely no access — we need to prioritize them,” Gibbons said. “But when you look at the number of communities and use an equity lens, black people, Indigenous people of color, people with disabilities, the majority of them live in urban communities.”
Uccello said shifts in federal policy are necessary for broad change.
“The ISPs mentioned in the report receive a lot of government subsidies,” she said. “If we know they’re getting … public money, why don’t we create systems where they have to be accountable to the public?”
Instead, she said, “we’ve created a system that guarantees unequal results.”
InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Reporter Kaylee Tournay can be reached at [email protected]rg.