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State Laws Allowed AT&T to Exclude Cleveland's Poorest Neighborhoods From High-Speed Internet Service

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It's Friday morning, and Howard Barksdale is running late. He drives in from Bedford to Cleveland's Glenville neighborhood twice weekly to attend classes at Ashbury Senior Computer Community Center, and today he got caught up in the slow service of the BMV. Slow service is everywhere these days.

Courtesy of National Digital Inclusion Alliance
  • Courtesy of National Digital Inclusion Alliance

Internet download speeds are glacial once you get into neighborhoods like Glenville, where AT&T willfully avoided rolling out its U-Verse service a few years back. The company has been accused of "digital redlining," specifically of leaving the poorest neighborhoods out of its infrastructure improvements in cities like Cleveland, Toledo, Dayton, Louisville, Detroit and Milwaukee.

High-speed internet — "VDSL," carrying download speeds of at least 18 megabits per second — just doesn't exist in Glenville. Ashbury offers a high-speed internet oasis via its Sprint Wi-Fi hotspot, and people come here to play catch-up and get the hang of things like email and search.

"I don't like not knowing," Barksdale says. "I refuse to be blindsided or afraid of anything like this. The only way to attack it is to attack it head-on, and I'm not going to let go until I tear it up." At 66, he has dipped his toes into the digital world only to wind up on the wrong end of a computer virus. You've got to learn how to navigate these waters. Fast, or at least serviceable, internet speeds make the education process not only easier but feasible.

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Ashbury sits quietly among a row of three-story homes in Glenville, a mostly impoverished neighborhood that squats in the crook of glitzy University Circle and even-more-impoverished East Cleveland. It sits quietly on Ashbury Avenue, in fact.

Across two rooms, 30 computer stations beckon eager students who work through tiers of classes before graduating in the summer. On some days, the center offers open lab hours. People come from all over to log in and look up their MyChart progress at MetroHealth or help their children through an online homework assignment. At home, for most of the people who live in Glenville or Hough or East Cleveland, functioning internet speeds simply don't exist.

Wanda Davis runs Ashbury with her family, and she knows these problems well; her neighborhood has a long history of being targeted by real estate developers and City Hall for redlining purposes. When she and her family were looking for a new business opportunity in 2001, they surveyed neighbors and landed on a clear-cut demand: People were going to need to keep up with the fast pace of 21st century life.

"At that time, the awareness of the Big Wave and the revolution of the computer industry was just under way," Davis says. That was back when internet speeds were mostly uniform across the city, before state legislators turned their backs on the market. "We saw the need back then, and here we are now, first believing way back then that that need would shrink, but the need has actually increased. Technology has moved so rapidly. Now, there's a real true saying: 'living online.'"

Anymore, it's nearly impossible to live in the real world — finding and keeping a job, paying bills, handling the ins and outs of health care and aging — without also living online. At Ashbury, Davis and her fellow instructors make sure that the seniors of Northeast Ohio not only keep up with the constantly shifting sands of the internet but get a grasp on the very basics: In a video produced for the center last year, one woman says, "I've heard people talk about being able to stream from the computer with the Wi-Fi."

Ashbury works closely with Connect Your Community, a local organization that last year began a comprehensive investigation into the real story behind Cleveland's incongruous internet access — the digital divide. The group ended up uncovering a web of discriminatory practices authorized in full by the state of Ohio.

***

The problem became apparent last summer.

In 2016, AT&T, one of two major cable internet providers in the Cleveland area, began a new "Access" program imposed by the FCC that offered $5- or $10-per-month internet service for customers enrolled in the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The $10 threshold was for customers who had access to 6 mbps (megabits per second) download speeds, and the $5 threshold was for 3 mbps. Connect Your Community wanted to raise awareness of this issue, because access to low-cost internet services is part of its mission.

Bill Callahan, director of Connect Your Community, acknowledges that not everyone speaks fluent DSL. For illustration purposes, 6 mbps is hell on YouTube or Netflix. Three mbps is even worse, turning your average PDF download into a chore. At 25 mbps and up, the new AT&T standard in Northeast Ohio's more affluent suburbs, it feels like gliding on ice.

In 2017, the FCC assumes 25 mbps as a legitimate level of broadband service that ought to be everywhere.

"In general, we try to figure out a way to make the fact that 50 percent of Cleveland low-income households don't have internet access — and a similar number in Detroit — an actionable issue," Callahan says. He and his partner organizations initially wanted to help get 5,000 people signed up for the AT&T program.

The organizations began looking at FCC Census block data to determine which households would be eligible for which tier of the new AT&T program and soon found out that most customers simply weren't eligible at all. Throughout the city of Cleveland, households and businesses languish on internet speeds of 1.5 mbps or .768 kbps — and they were often paying more than the $5 per month that AT&T was offering customers at higher speeds. Callahan was surprised. "What we realized when we did the map was, hey, that's a fifth of the city," he tells Scene. "Obviously what the FCC thought was that everybody has 3 mbps service."

Scattered news coverage at the time, including a story by CNN, forced AT&T's hand; the company extended its $5-per-month offer to users who were operating at sluggish speeds. The central problem, though — Cleveland neighborhoods' lack of high-speed internet access — was not addressed. The big picture demonstrates that this was always the plan. And those homes aren't getting upgrades anytime soon.

Through the AT&T Access experience last summer, a window to the company's history of broadband deployment was opened. If wide swaths of low-income families were stuck with low-speed internet in spite of clear-cut demand — if more than 20 percent of a major American city was being left behind on the digital superhighway — then something must have gone wrong.

Surely the market would have course-corrected by now, right?

***

Most at-home internet users in Cuyahoga County know that the two major service providers around here are AT&T, which offers its U-Verse package, and Spectrum, which was born recently out of Charter Communications' acquisition of Time Warner Cable. In many neighborhoods in Cleveland, Spectrum is the sole option. There's a simple reason for that.

Let's roll the tape.

Before Spectrum, there was Time Warner Cable. Before Time Warner, there was Adelphia, which purchased CableVision for $1.5 billion in 2000. At that time, Adelphia went to city council for approval of its franchise and agreed to do a citywide upgrade to CableVision's digital services on every block. Back then, ISPs had to negotiate terms with municipalities; it's what's called "home rule." The public, in theory, has the upper hand.

Within two years there was a cable system passing through every address in the city. To date, under Spectrum, you can get internet speeds of 50 mbps anywhere in Cleveland. You may not be able to afford anything close to that, but it's there.

The marketplace theory goes like this: Cable competition would naturally lower prices and, on a long enough timeline, produce the highest quality product for the broadest customer base.

As internet technology evolved and companies like AT&T sought to expand in cities like Cleveland, home rule was seen more and more as an obstacle to innovation. Let the companies do their work unburdened, the thinking in the Statehouse went, and we'll see real competition. The end users will reap the bounty of the marketplace.

Anyone reading the headlines in states like Ohio and Michigan 10 years ago would have gotten that impression. Senate Bill 117 was working its way through the state legislature, proposing to eliminate the municipal franchising of cable television providers, to eliminate home rule with respect to cable and internet providers. AT&T lobbied vigorously in support of the bill.

But the bill, which postured to open up the marketplace, inherently allowed providers to pick and choose which parts of a municipality they wanted to serve. Mayor Frank Jackson, a career proponent of home rule, and city council naturally opposed the bill. Never mind the fact that city council would go on to appoint then-State Rep. Eugene Miller, who voted yea on SB 117, to a council seat within a few years.

Miller is not alone among pro-SB 117 politicians with deep ties to the Cleveland area: State legislators who approved the elimination of municipal cable franchising include Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish, Cuyahoga County Councilman Dale Miller, Cuyahoga County Sustainability Director Mike Foley, State Sen. Mike Skindell (a one-time candidate for Lakewood mayor), former State Sen. Shirley Smith (a one-time candidate for the Cuyahoga County executive) and so on.

In fact, every Democrat and nearly every Republican in the General Assembly in 2007 approved the bill. Only State Rep. Thomas Brinkman (R-Mt. Lookout) and former State Rep. Jeff Wagner (R-Sycamore) opposed.

Budish, in fact, co-sponsored the final legislation, opening the gates for internet service providers to call the shots.

"In other words," Callahan tells Scene, "SB 117 was an open invitation to Ohio telcos and cable providers building the next generation of IP — internet as well as TV — services to cherry-pick some communities and redline others."

As part of the SB 117 passage, the Ohio Revised Code now reads: "Ohio's economy will be enhanced by investment in new communications and video programming infrastructure, including fiber optic and internet protocol technologies. ... Increased competition in the provision of video service will provide new and more video programming choices for consumers in this state, and new providers have stated their desire to supply that service."

A decade later, that has not panned out.

In 2010, the situation concretized when the Statehouse declared that the internet was not a public utility. The Public Utility Commission of Ohio was stripped of its oversight, as well. Local governments were even further removed from the supposed market.

An AT&T spokesperson confirmed to Scene that the company has invested "nearly $1.5 billion in our Ohio wireless and wired networks during 2013-2015, with more than $325 million of that in Cleveland." But from 2007 to 2009, the company had invested a greater amount: $1.6 billion statewide.

A 2013 presentation to the Select Committee on Telecommunications Regulatory Reform demonstrated how the negative effects of the PUCO bill took hold almost immediately: Private investment decreased, telecom employment decreased in Ohio more than any other Great Lakes state, service rates increased and service complaints received by PUCO increased (especially for AT&T services). Despite all of that, home broadband adoption increased 16 percent from 2008 to 2012. The demand is always there, not unlike the market for utilities like electricity, but the regulation of resources was gone.

"The whole point of 2007 was to eliminate the monopoly," Callahan says. "Classic utility thing. You either have regulation or you have competition, right? It turns out that regulation is the way you get competition."

***

With the long history of Ohio's "cable competition" legislation as its backbone, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance released a report this past winter that shows how AT&T willfully expanded its high-speed internet services in Cleveland and left the city's poorest neighborhoods to languish with sluggish technologies. The organization uses the term "digital redlining," and a series of maps reinforces the point.

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Using records and data provided to the FCC, the NDIA designed several maps that show where AT&T's highest and lowest internet speeds are offered. As AT&T developed its technology and rolled out improved services, neighborhoods like Hough, Glenville, Central and Fairfax — where the poverty rate runs higher than elsewhere in the city — were excluded.

Between 2008 and 2013, according to NDIA, AT&T outfitted Cleveland with optical fiber extensions and VRAD cabinets — the infrastructure that would support its new U-Verse technology.

Here's how it works: The U-Verse system has fiber cables traveling from all but four wire centers in Cleveland to central cabinets located in neighborhoods around the city. The wire center at West 65th and Madison, for instance, has never been outfitted with this "fiber to the node" technology; if you live in Detroit Shoreway, which was a different-looking neighborhood during the U-Verse roll-out, AT&T's high-speed internet isn't an option.

The four wire centers that AT&T excluded from its U-Verse infrastructure aren't located anywhere near wealthier suburban customer bases: West 65th Street and Madison Avenue, 5400 Prospect Ave., 2130 East 107th St. and 12223 St. Clair Ave.

Indeed, not all of Cleveland or Cuyahoga County is served equally by this fiber-based U-Verse infrastructure, flying in the face of SB 117 hopes and wishes — and despite a state provision that prohibits cable companies from discriminating against a particular customer base: "[N]o video service provider shall deny access to video service to any group of potential residential subscribers in its video service area because of the race or income of the residents in the local area in which the group resides."

Homes with access to internet download speeds of 18 mbps or more are found in the outlying areas of the county, and most of Cleveland is left with significantly slower access. This discrepancy hampers any number of quality-of-life issues relating to employment opportunities, homework, job training and state bureaucratic activities. ("You're either employed or you're trying to be," Callahan said.) The "digital divide" is a real thing.

"There's going to be all these people who are applying for unemployment in your districts, and you're going to be telling them to drive to a library," Callahan says. "Good luck, right?"

Since 2013, though, AT&T has moved on to different types of internet access technology, and by all accounts is no longer deploying that sort of U-Verse "fiber to the node" infrastructure, meaning that there are no improvements in sight for Cleveland's poorest neighborhoods. The areas that were not built out with fiber infrastructure will be unable to join a future theoretical 5G data system or, say, the mostly abandoned Google Fiber project.

"The national context of this is that AT&T basically gave up on this deployment and changed its business model," Callahan says. "There's nothing random about this. The decision to [build out fiber infrastructure] in some wire centers and not others is a deliberate planning decision. This has nothing to do with customer demand; they had no idea what the customer demand was going to be when they did this. It's a decision built on the characteristics of the neighborhoods. In general, I would say that means poverty."

A spokesperson from AT&T responded to Scene in March, shortly after the NDIA report was released: "Access to the internet is essential, which is why we've continuously invested in expanding service and enhancing speeds. The report does not accurately reflect the investment we've made in bringing faster internet to urban and rural areas across the U.S. While we are investing in broadband, we're also investing in technologies that will mitigate some of the infrastructure limitations."

AT&T is not alone in the benefits it reaps from a lack of municipal franchise competition. Time Warner, which has since been acquired by Charter Communications, canceled long-standing agreements forged between predecessor Adelphia and the city of Cleveland to maintain its institutional network. When Charter bought Time Warner and created Spectrum, the city of Cleveland could do nothing but watch.

In April 2017, the FCC terminated the acquisition clause that mandated that Charter build out its internet service (inherited from Time Warner here in Cleveland) to 1 million customers who already had access to a competing service (like AT&T).

There is no competition between Spectrum and AT&T, since AT&T has simply decided not to outfit particular neighborhoods with its internet services.

That's the point, Callahan argues, of SB 117. Get the city out of the way, and private companies can do as they please. It's "a feature, not a bug" of Ohio's telecommunications laws, he says. FCC trends show that, soon enough, oversight will become completely consolidated at the federal level.

Logan Martinez, writing for The Columbus Institute for Contemporary Journalism in May 2007, called the shot: "SB 117 allows cable companies to redline, targeting wealthy and middle class neighborhoods for service, avoiding low income and working class neighborhoods."

***

If one were to take a brief detour south on I-75, one would arrive in Chattanooga, Tennessee (population 173,000), where 58 percent of the population is white and 35 percent of the population is black.

In 2010, the southern Tennessee city became the first area in the U.S. to be wired by a municipality for 1 gbps fiber-optic internet service. In 2015, the city began offering 10 gbps service. This is the absolute cream of ISP technology. (For comparison, Spectrum maxes out at 300 mbps, less than 25 percent of the rate that Chattanooga residents experience. Returning to Glenville, internet users there trudge along at less than 1 percent of Chattanooga's rate.)

It's "the fastest, cheapest and most pervasive internet infrastructure in the country," according to Digital C's Lev Gonick here in Cleveland.

In upgrading Chattanooga's electrical grid in 2009, municipal power company EPB laid fiber optic cable to each consumer's home simultaneously. This was the groundwork for Chattanooga's revelatory move. The logistics are almost too simple in hindsight; EPB already had access to the right-of-way needed to run fiber. At the time, most Chattanooga consumers were using Comcast's internet access, which came at a drastically slower speed and a much higher price.

After working to set up the fiber infrastructure, Chattanooga sought out companies like Google and Apple and various capital venture firms. "We tried a lot of things, and it didn't work," Chattanooga mayor Andy Berke said at a recent City Club of Cleveland event. (As an aside, almost, to Gonick in the audience, Berke audibly said "Ugh" when considering speeds of 15 mbps in the Cleveland area, one one-hundredth of his city's speed.)

Chattanooga is a fine example, but there are now almost 500 communities in the U.S. offering publicly owned internet services. "Even in places where private companies provide high-speed service, a public internet option may prove increasingly vital to low-income residents," The Nation's Peter Moskowitz wrote last year.

There's nothing stopping Cleveland from heading down that path. Callahan even wrote in 2007 on his blog: "If there was ever a good reason for Cleveland to hesitate to build our own community-owned, multi-user network infrastructure, that reason is now history." Cleveland Public Power, the successor of Muny Light — that public utility that former mayor Dennis Kucinich so vigorously fought for in the 1970s — is here already. (Callahan told Scene last fall: "The other obvious option is it's another argument for the city to build its own. That's really the only thing cities can do anymore. Right now, there's no prohibition on this city building an internet system.")

Because of the structure of Ohio's laws (and the laws passed elsewhere), digital giants like AT&T and Comcast have little incentive to upgrade their infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods — never mind the demand and feasible affordability. The fact remains, and telecom giants don't like when people point out the demand curve.

Comcast has sued the city of Chattanooga twice in an effort to stop the municipally owned infrastructure development. The public won. It's possible.

***

The NDIA headlines — which may have made the rounds on suburban Facebook pages this winter, inspiring fits of outrage and sad and red-face emojis — weren't your classic front-page revelations in neighborhoods like Glenville.

"People have been saying, 'Oh, did you read the redlining report?' 'Oh, well, we knew that,'" Wanda Davis says, describing the conversations that have taken place since NDIA revealed its findings. It's sort of taken for granted in Glenville. "The area's been redlined before between financial institutions and insurance institutions and reinvestment portfolios ... . All of the older seniors kinda know from the years of redlining by other companies; they say, 'Well, Ms. Davis, we could have told you that.'"

"When we started doing it, the internet was not a thing; email was barely a thing in general culture. This was basically about how to use a word processor or you couldn't function economically," Callahan says. "Now it's the fact that you can't apply for a job."

Neighborhoods like Glenville are stuck in digital time now. Because there's no fiber infrastructure in place, there's no way for future technologies to access these places without rolling out a near-total overhaul of the system — something that telecom companies can avoid, because there's no government compelling them to do so.

The poor stay poor; the rich binge Stranger Things.

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