Digital Redlining and its Impact on Internet Access in Rural America

The world has grown more dependent on the Internet than ever. Despite this, access to the Web has not been treated as a public necessity for everyday life.

Redlining refers to the refusal to provide services that communities need through selective extortion or simply refraining from operating in those areas. It historically referred to financial services not wanting to serve certain demographics, but even supermarkets and healthcare providers have engaged in it by refusal to provide services due to profitability or being located far from the communities they’re intended to serve.

Rural Scene
Rural Internet access is imperative. Photo courtesy Richard Schmidt, Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0.

ISPs have engaged in “digital redlining” where laying broadband infrastructure gets neglected in lower-income and/or rural areas. Unlike providing service in areas with higher median income and/or population density, ISPs fear that they won’t get much of a return on their investment.

Here are some of the impacts digital redlining has on underserved regions in need of Internet access.

Poor Service when actually Available

Without basic infrastructure to provide high-speed Internet in rural regions, ISPs typically only offer enhanced services to more affluent regions. This leaves fewer options for users in those underserved regions. Additionally, there’s less incentive for ISPs to provide faster service.

Slow Internet Speed

In 2016, AT&T came under fire for not offering its “Access for AT&T” low-cost broadband service in regions where the local infrastructure is unable to reach 3MB/second. In addition to monopolized service, users also get less for their money compared to users in more affluent areas with access to higher speeds.

Impacts their Ability to participate in Society

Many people depend on the Internet to make a living whether it’s through traditional employment, self-employment, or entrepreneurship. Both children and adults need to access it for education. Everything from booking doctor’s appointments to doing taxes are now done online as both public and private organizations offer many aspects of their operations on the Web.

For people living in areas subject to digital redlining, the impacts aren’t just inconveniences. It’s also preventing economic growth and work opportunities particularly in areas where job growth is poor or nonexistent. However, having no Internet or unreliable or slow connections that are costly effectively locks people out of bettering their economic situation. Freelance work, online education, and other means of increasing one’s skills or earning income require consistent high-speed Internet which is made impossible by digital redlining.

Physical Redlining is exacerbated through the Sale of Data

Redlining entails cutting access to financial services, healthcare, and supermarkets, creating a domino effect of endless poverty. It becomes even more pervasive by telecoms collecting user data and buying ads targeted by race, income, and other demographics. These granular data collections are able to pinpoint groups down to their residential location.

When ISPs control which type of ads for jobs, housing, and other life-changing needs can be seen by which groups, it plays a major role in ensuring the persistence of poverty. While communities are beginning to take initiative with municipal broadband projects and cooperatives, users in underserved areas are still in need of faster Internet service.