Residents from Cleveland, Ohio are accusing AT&T of failing to serve low-income, African-American communities in the area with the same high-speed broadband provided to wealthier and suburban neighborhoods.
In a complaint filed with the FCC Thursday, Joanne Elkins, Hattie Lanfair, and Rachelle Lee, three self-described African-American, low-income residents, allege AT&T is violating the Communications Act’s bar against unjust and unreasonable discrimination. The three are requesting monetary damages and injunctions prohibiting AT&T from discriminatory practices. They also ask the Commission to force the company to provide broadband services to the lower-income minority communities in Cleveland.
Citing a study conducted by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance and Connect Your Community, the complaint says the failure to bring high speed internet to low-income communities is part of a pattern by AT&T.
The study allegedly shows AT&T has withheld its fiber-to-the-node (FTTN) VDSL infrastructure from a majority of high poverty census blocks with individual poverty rates above 35 percent, the complaint alleges.
“Such low-income neighborhoods have been relegated to an older, slower transmission technology called ADSL2, resulting in significantly slower internet access speeds than what AT&T provides to middle-income city neighborhoods as well as most suburbs,” the complainants assert. “As a result, their residents are left with severely limited and uneven internet access; no access to AT&T’s competitive fiber-enabled video service.”
Lawyers for the Elkins, Lanfair, and Lee held settlement discussion talks with AT&T prior to filing the complaint, but the parties remain far apart. The complainants allege AT&T refused to acknowledge its obligation to serve the residents, according to the filing.
Elkins, who is visually impaired, claims she purchased a $1,500 security system to protect her home, but found the system was unusable because of the slow AT&T broadband speeds.
Lanfair, asserts that she attempted to upgrade her services but was told none were available. Her daughter, who is a teacher, can’t stay at Lanfair’s house during the school year because she can’t download homework, the complaint says.
Meanwhile, Lee says that her grandchildren are unable to stream videos or play games on devices when they visit due to the “painfully slow” services.
According to the complaint, AT&T reported that 22 percent of Cleveland census blocks have maximum residential download speeds of 3 Mbps or less, while 55 percent had top download speeds no greater than 6 Mbps. This is compared to 12 percent and 24 percent for the rest of Cuyahoga County, respectively.
Lawyers for the complainants write that the analysis shows a troubling pattern of what they call “digital redlining” by AT&T.
“A pattern of long-term systematic failure to invest in the infrastructure required to provide equitable, mainstream internet access to residents of the central city (compared to the suburbs) and to lower-income city neighborhoods,” the complaint says.
ArsTechnica reported that Joan Marsh, AT&T’s EVP of regulatory and state external affairs, responded with a statement saying, “We do not redline. Our commitment to diversity and inclusion is unparalleled. Our investment decisions are based on the cost of deployment and demand for our services and are of course fully compliant with the requirements of the Communications Act. We will vigorously defend the complaint filed today.”