Poorer and more diverse areas of Portland and Seattle offered slower and more expensive internet

Illustration by Gabe Hongsdusit

Illustration by Gabe Hongsdusit

CenturyLink customers in Seattle and Portland get a wide range of services for the same price, while poorer residents and people of color are burdened more by lower speeds, according to a new analysis of digital disparities in U.S. cities.

Seattle had the worst disparities among the cities surveyed in the Pacific Northwest. About half of low-income areas were offered slow internet, compared to only 19% of upper-income areas. Addresses in neighborhoods with more residents of color were also more likely to be offered slow Internet: 32.8% of them, compared to 18.7% in areas with more white residents.

In Portland, CenturyLink’s offerings were also uneven, as 27% of addresses in low-income areas offered speeds below the federal broadband standard of 25 mbps, compared to 16% in high-income areas. In both Portland and Seattle, the “red line” maps used to discriminate against minority communities in neighborhoods deemed “dangerous” by mortgage lenders in the mid-20th century were more likely to see the worst internet deals in both cities today .

Disparities in the Pacific Northwest’s two largest cities This fall, a national study by The Markup, a nonprofit news outlet that covers the impact of technology on society, found that the four major Internet providers routinely offer slower speeds to some neighborhoods for the same price. such as the high speed offered to other areas. 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 disparities in Seattle, Portland and 17 other cities. In two-thirds of the cities for which the news outlet had enough data to compare, the worst deals were offered in the least white neighborhoods.

Along with Seattle and Portland, the worst deals in 20 other cities aligned with former redlining boundaries.

A spokeswoman for Lumen, CenturyLink’s parent company, denied discriminatory intent and criticized The Markup’s investigation.

“The methodology used for the report you are reading is deeply flawed,” Mark Molzen said in an email. “We do not discriminate as a red line and consider the accusation offensive. While we cannot comment on behalf of other providers, we can say that we do not enable services based on race or ethnicity.”

Graphic by Joel Eastwood

Comcast, the primary internet service provider for both Seattle and Portland, was not included in the analysis because it does not offer different speeds for the same price, a practice known as “tiering.” EarthLink also serves Seattle and Portland, but the analysis did not show disparities by income or race.

Local and state officials in Oregon and Washington expressed concern but were surprised by the inconsistencies revealed in the analysis.

“I have no doubt that there are inequities in Portland,” said Rebecca Gibbons, strategic initiatives manager for Portland’s Office of Community Technology.

While Comcast and one or two other providers also provide service to cities, the new data confirms that lower-income residents are left with the worst options, Gibbons told InvestigateWest.

“If the consumer has only one choice, it’s about the level of customer service, those fees, those rates,” he said. “We want it to be as competitive as possible.”

Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Southern Jackson County, Ore., who sits on Oregon’s Joint Committee on Information Management and Technology, said the findings “clearly show a calculated business decision about who pays for services.”

“As a result, people were left out,” he said.

Leveling is not illegal. While policymakers at all levels agree that broadband is an important tool for enhancing social, economic, and educational opportunity, it is not regulated like electricity is as a utility. Providers can set their own prices, and local and state authorities cannot force them to build modernized infrastructure in areas that may be less profitable.

While advocates and government officials see an opportunity to offer additional funds in the $65 billion in federal funding approved in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, the money may not provide much relief for underserved urban neighborhoods.

Francella Ochillo, executive director of Next Century Cities, a national nonprofit that advocates for reliable and affordable high-speed Internet for all, said The Markup’s analysis of providers sheds light on the plight of residents without service.

“Companies have very powerful communications people and lobbyists to try to convince people that you’re not seeing what you’re seeing with your own eyes, but we’re seeing it with our own eyes,” Ochillo said. “And we have the numbers to prove it.”

But looking at the data is only the first step, he said.

“We have built a system where unequal outcomes are ensured,” he said. “If we want a different outcome, we’re going to have to not only examine but dismantle some of the practices that got us here.”

Backward neighborhoods

The stories of CenturyLink’s expansion into Portland and Seattle closely mirror each other.

In 2015, the landline company began to compete with cable companies such as Comcast, which controlled the bulk of the high-speed Internet market. CenturyLink sought cable franchises and permits and began building high-speed Internet and cable infrastructure, officials said.

CenturyLink’s appetite for expansion as a cable provider has been noted, despite just a few years since its expansion in Seattle and Portland, officials said. Gibbons said CenturyLink is exiting the Portland market in 2020 and the company is exiting the Seattle cable market in 2021, according to a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office.

When CenturyLink remained an active Internet service provider but stopped expanding as a cable provider, Gibbons said, “we lost our regulatory authority to require them to build in every neighborhood.”

As a result, CenturyLink’s expansion into both cities has led to some uneven scenarios.

In Portland, for example, two blocks north of the Lloyd Center on Broadway Street, CenturyLink offers Internet speeds of up to 15 megabits per second for $50 a month for an office building. A mile and a half southeast, in the high-income Laurelhurst area, residents of a home on 35th Avenue could pay $20 less a month for 200 megabits per second — a lower price for speeds more than 13 times faster.

During its tenure as an Internet service provider, CenturyLink has dogged the attorneys general of Washington and Oregon over complaints of confusing and duplicative charges. In 2020, litigation resulted in a $6 million settlement in Washington and a $4 million settlement in Oregon.

A spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Justice said the leveling issue does not violate Oregon’s Unfair Trade Practices Act, and no case has been filed against the broadband provider under that law.

State officials and advocates acknowledged the practical factors behind the disparities. Building infrastructure is expensive, and businesses choose to do so in areas where they think they can profit from the costs.

But, Ochillo said, “Enforced exclusion is discriminatory whether you intend it to be or not.

“Communities know that their students can’t go to school online, that their small businesses don’t operate with the same kind of continuity, that they don’t have the same type of telehealth options as other people.”

Lots of money, few rules

Internet service providers, or ISPs, also show their participation in the Affordable Connection Program as evidence of their commitment to developing digital capital.

The federal program, which began in 2021 to replace the old broadband program, subsidizes internet for $30 a month for low-income households or $75 for households on Indian reservations. Many different indicators of economic need may qualify households to participate in a program administered by the Federal Communications Commission.

Enrollment is low. Data from mid-2022 shows that only 27% of eligible households in Portland and Seattle are enrolled in the program.

Officials have given several reasons why this could happen. Rep. Marsh of Oregon criticized the program for being too dependent on ISPs, and Gibbons called the registration requirements “too burdensome.”

Some aspects of the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act indicate that the federal government is beginning to focus on how it can more proactively address digital inequalities.

For the first time in March, the FCC began soliciting comments on digital discrimination and 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. holding, regardless of income level, ethnicity, race, religion and national origin”.

Infrastructure act funding also allows states and localities to consider new opportunities before funding is allocated.

In late November, the FCC released its latest broadband map. It is the primary resource that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the executive branch tasked 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 grossly overstating their true coverage,” said Evan Marwell, CEO of digital equity advocacy nonprofit EducationSuperHighway.

Between now and January, the FCC is accepting calls from states to fine-tune the maps. The Washington Department of Commerce and the Oregon Broadband Office issued news releases requesting information on the FCC maps, including how to report problems.

But there’s a caveat for Portland and Seattle: Despite billions of dollars pouring in, most officials doubt city residents will see much of it.

That’s because Congress required states to spend infrastructure act money first on areas that are “underserved,” or have no broadband access at all. Neighborhoods already served by an ISP, however limited, will not be touched unless rural, remote areas are taken care of first.

It’s a sore spot for city and state officials.

“Yes, rural communities that have no access — we should prioritize them,” Gibbons said. “But when you look at the number of communities and you use an equity lens, Black, Indigenous people of color, people with disabilities, most of them live in urban communities.”

Federal policy changes are needed for large-scale change, Ochillo said.

“The ISPs mentioned in the report receive a ton of government subsidies,” he said. “If we know they’re … getting public funds, why don’t we create systems where they have to be publicly accountable?”

Instead, he said, “We’ve built a system that ensures unequal outcomes.”

Explore the West is an independent news nonprofit organization dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Reporter Kaylee Tornay can be reached kaylee@invw.org.

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