In June, CNET published an article discussing the concept of “digital redlining.” Historically, redlining refers to the practice of banks using maps to withhold loans for certain areas, usually poor communities of people of color (these areas were outlined in red). This, in turn, inhibited these communities’ ability to grow in comparison to white communities. The story describes a family’s struggle to find a reliable high-speed internet plan while living in Los Angeles public housing. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) get to choose where to build their networks and what types of plans are available. In today’s society, a reliable internet connection is a necessity, often required for job applications, scheduling travel, connecting with others, online education, and more recently working remotely from home. Those without an affordable high speed internet plan are at a distinct disadvantage, and communities with limited ISP options will again face obstacles for growth.
First let us ask, is redlining, a historically racist practice, now occurring in digital form? CNET reported that there is no data about nationwide digital redlining, though individual studies have been performed in cities such as “Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Oakland, and other parts of California.” Digital redlining isn’t necessarily hiding in the shadows; it is easier to identify than we think. One can use an interactive racial demographics map in conjunction with the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Fixed Broadband Deployment map. Based on FCC data, ~95% of communities have access to 3 or more ISPs that offer speeds of 25 megabytes per second (Mbps). These numbers drastically shift, however, when looking at the next category of 100 Mbps, where only ~15% of communities have 3 or more ISPs providing services at those speeds. Unfortunately, when you look at these maps side by side you can notice some trends. Supporting the story reported by CNET, a cursory glance at these maps show that neighborhoods with a majority white population (such as in the Northwest metro LA area) are much more likely to have multiple ISPs offering these speedy internet plans. For folks in other neighborhoods, having fewer options could mean paying for overpriced internet or not having access to required speeds.
While this is a problem that needs to be addressed on a national scale, how can libraries help in the meantime? CNET specifically mentions the Housing Authority of Los Angeles’ Imperial Courts as one of the many areas lacking speedy plans. That area is served by the Willowbrook Library, part of the Los Angeles County Library system. The library offers both public computers and Wi-Fi access. Fortunately, providing computer access and free Wi-Fi is pretty much a norm for libraries by this point. As the digital divide becomes more prevalent, however, it is important that libraries make sure their equipment, in this case internet speeds and accessibility, meet the needs of their patrons. In a 2021 article from Library Technology Reports, David Lee King discusses other strategies libraries implement to bridge the digital divide. Several library systems allow patrons to borrow laptops and wi-fi hotspots, providing patrons with internet access at home. This is easier said than done. Sei-Ching Joanna Sin observed in 2011, writing in the Library & Information Science Research journal, that library systems in lower-income neighborhoods were less funded. This means that even if libraries want to provide high-speed internet connection in digitally redlined communities, they may not have the funding for necessary resources. King touches on this and proposes a possible solution: community partnerships. At the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library for example, they partnered with the local public housing authority. They were able to put a computer center inside the community center that serves public housing, and taught technology classes there.
While the aforementioned initiatives can greatly aid residents in underserved neighborhoods, it takes more than public libraries to fight against digital redlining. In March 2021, members of local governments across the country signed a letter to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel requesting that the FCC take action. Specifically, they want the FCC to launch a digital redlining commission as well as “reclassify broadband providers under Title II authority to reinstate previous net neutrality protections.” You can read the full letter here. Additionally, Consumer Reports recently launched a nationwide campaign to collect information that it can use to advocate for ISP transparency.
Does digital redlining occur in your community? Use the tools below to view racial demographic maps and ISP providers.
- Predominant Populations in the USA – developed by Andrew Skinner and Jennifer Bell using datasets from the U.S. Census Bureau
- FCC Fixed Broadband Deployment Area Summaries
David Sye is a Research and Instruction Librarian at Murray State University in southwestern Kentucky. He is liaison for the History, Political Science & Sociology, and Psychology departments, as well as teaching instruction sessions and credit-bearing courses on information literacy. He holds a BA in History from the University of Illinois at Springfield, in addition to an MA in History and MLIS from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Prior to working at Murray State University, he has worked in public libraries and briefly taught middle school social studies.