When noncable internet providers — outlets like AT&T or Verizon — choose which communities to offer the fastest connections, they don’t juice up their networks so everyone in their service areas has the option of buying quicker speeds. Instead, they tend to favor the wealthy over the poor, according to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity.
The Center’s data analysis found that the largest noncable internet providers collectively offer faster speeds to about 40 percent of the population they serve nationwide in wealthy areas compared with just 22 percent of the population in poor areas. That leaves tens of millions of Americans with the choice of either purchasing an expensive connection from the only provider in their area, typically a cable company, or just doing the best they can with slower speeds. Middle-income areas don’t fare much better, with a bit more than 27 percent of the population having access to a DSL provider’s fastest speeds. The Center reached its conclusions by merging the latest Federal Communications Commission data with income information from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The FCC, which regulates the industry, defines broadband as a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second. Those speeds are mostly only available through wired connections to the home. It’s the speed that the agency believes is needed to support multiple devices on a single connection, stream uninterrupted movies and educational videos, upload photos, and allow for future applications such as in-home health services and networked homes.
The noncable internet providers — the four largest are AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., CenturyLink Inc. and Frontier Communications Corp. — hook up customers over telephone wires that are Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL), or use hybrid networks that include some fiber connections near, or sometimes directly to, homes. The Center included all types of connection in its analysis. These companies account for nearly 40 percent of the 92 million internet connections nationwide.
Cable companies, such as Comcast Corp. and Charter Communications Inc., operate under a different set of conditions. These providers offer the same fast speeds to almost every community they serve, in part because of franchise agreements with local governments. But a previous Center investigation and other reports have shown that cable firms sometimes avoid lower-income or hard-to-reach areas based on how franchise agreements are written. Poor areas not served by the cable companies are not included in the Center’s analysis, which results in what seems like an equitable distribution of speeds across income levels.
In addition, internet speeds sent over coaxial cable used by the cable firms don’t degrade over long distances as they do over copper telephone lines. That means that in order to keep speeds from slowing, DSL carriers must make costly investments in equipment, including fiber cable in some places.
It would seem DSL providers’ coverage decisions are simply smart business. After all, the companies and economists say, providers must invest millions of dollars in equipment to boost speeds over relatively short distances in their service areas. The best way to get a substantive return on investment is to provide the service in wealthier areas. Besides, fewer lower income households purchase a home internet connection than do their higher income neighbors.
But broadband advocates, economists — those in the United States, Europe and the White House — as well as the FCC argue that a fast internet connection is now so crucial to managing daily life and seizing opportunities for advancement that it’s an economic necessity for households and communities. And they further argue that having a choice between two providers is essential to keeping prices down.
“Society said it did not matter if you could pay for electricity — we wanted everyone to have it. Society said we would not limit dial tone to those who could pay the most, we gave it to all,” said telecommunications lawyer Gerard Lederer of Best Best & Krieger LLC in Washington, D.C., in an email. “Broadband is quickly becoming that utility, and if applications only work at high speeds, then the universal availability of that speed must be the goal, otherwise you are providing everyone with water, just some of the water is not drinkable.”