Internet providers must prioritize minority communities

High-speed internet is a necessity. Students need it for classroom work. Grandparents need it to FaceTime with their grandchildren. Increasingly, workers need it to be able to work from home.

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A Chicago Public Schools student types on a computer keyboard.

Telecommunications companies should not be allowed to engage in modern-day redlining.

Associated Press

Thanks to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, there is $65 billion dedicated to closing the digital divide, including a $30 monthly benefit for low-income folks’ internet bills, bringing us closer to making sure every American can get online.

There’s just one problem: Some prominent telecommunications companies are engaging in modern-day redlining, discriminating in who gets access to high-speed internet.

AT&T has perhaps the most clear record of “digital redlining” here in Illinois, as is reflected by the most recent mapping of its fiber availability in Chicago. The layout of AT&T’s fiber shows the company has prioritized upgrading its broadband technology to fiber in wealthier areas, while leaving low-income communities of color with outdated, slower technology that prevents them from accessing the digital resources they need.

A 2020 report by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance and Communications Workers of America indicates this discrimination is also being practiced by the company on a national level, across AT&T’s 21-state footprint. The median income for households with fiber available is 34 percent higher than in areas with DSL (slower speeds) only.

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Still, the practice is especially damaging here in the Chicago area. The city has a long, disturbing history of redlining — a term used to describe the exclusionary tactics where real estate agents diverted investment away from Black neighborhoods toward white ones. This destroyed generations of Black wealth and is one of the best examples of institutional racism in the Windy City.

Now, given our increasing reliance on the internet, communications companies that engage in digital redlining of Black communities could have a similar effect.

High-speed internet is a necessity. Students need it for classroom work. Grandparents need it to FaceTime with their grandchildren. Increasingly, workers need it to be able to work from home.

Sadly, far too many are still without this vital resource and as a result are at an unimaginable disadvantage. The FCC estimates that nearly 17 million students have been without the internet they need to function remotely during the pandemic.

We can’t let the greed of powerful corporations dictate whether Illinois’s lower-income communities of color have access to the vital digital resources.

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A student’s educational attainment should not be shaped by whether big companies view their neighborhood as a good enough return on investment. Folks with health issues shouldn’t miss out on access to tele-health services simply because they live on Chicago’s South Side and don’t have what corporations view as enough money in their pockets to be worth serving. 

We need some accountability, so I urge our attorney general to investigate the extent of this business practice thoroughly or for our Legislature to ask the executives of any company taking part in this discriminatory practice, like AT&T, to testify and explain why poor, Black communities are not deserving of a level playing field.

It’s time for our elected leaders to hold bad actors accountable for their years of discriminating against people of color.

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Tiffany Henyard is the Thornton Township supervisor and mayor of Dolton.

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