Typically, when people think of redlining they think of the discriminatory practices of banking institutions throughout the 20th Century. During this period, banks would withhold loans from Black, Latino and other people of color, depriving them of the ability to own a home or pursue the American dream. Here in Los Angeles County, while this practice has been made illegal, we sadly still see the long-term consequences in the racial inequities across health, education and economic outcomes for people of color. 

But a recent study by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) reflects how a new, more modern form of redlining is being practiced across the state today: digital redlining. 

CPUC’s study found that two of the state’s leading internet service providers, AT&T and Comcast, are digital redlining by deliberately underinvesting in broadband infrastructure in low-income communities of color, while investing more heavily in wealthier, whiter communities. The data and maps included in the study show that predominantly Latino communities throughout LA County such as South LA, Southeast LA and the San Fernando Valley are disproportionately underserved by internet service providers. These actions, driven singularly by the desire for higher profits, create a digital environment where low-income communities of color have less digital infrastructure and slower internet speeds, causing them to miss out on many of the critical resources that internet providers connect wealthier communities to. 

When it comes to AT&T, CPUC’s findings are just the most recent example of a long history of discriminatory business practices. A 2020 study by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance found that AT&T has neglected communities of color in cities across its national footprint and “is making the digital divide worse and failing its customers […] by not investing in crucial fiber-optic buildout” to low-income areas. 

With the high-speed internet playing a more and more significant role in our daily lives, it’s not hard to see how this neglect will continue to widen the disadvantages faced by marginalized communities. 

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, 81% of Latino households in California have access to high-speed internet at home, trailing behind white households at 87%.  The impacts of these disparities are far reaching. Like we saw heightened throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, students will be without the connectivity they need for online learning and educational resources, older residents and those with medical problems will be deprived of telehealth services, likely leading to worse health outcomes, and minority-owned small businesses as well as those in the workforce will be without the countless economic and professional opportunities that come with an online connection. 

Digital redlining also has profound implications for civic engagement. The internet has become an essential tool for accessing government services, participating in political discourse, and advocating for change. By depriving communities of color of reliable internet access, companies like AT&T undermine their ability to engage in the democratic process. This further marginalizes these communities, hindering their voices from being heard and their concerns from being addressed.

Companies like AT&T, which play a crucial role in advancing digital equity, cannot absolve themselves of responsibility by claiming to value diversity and inclusion or hosting a shallow ribbon-cutting ceremony. Their actions clearly tell a different story – profits, not principles, dictate their decisions. Digital redlining not only contradicts their proclaimed values but also perpetuates systemic discrimination. Internet Service Providers should recognize their obligation to serve all communities equally and ensure equitable access to reliable internet services. 

However, given this pattern of behavior, the prospect of AT&T recognizing their obligation seems unlikely. 

It’s critical that regulators and policymakers stand up for the interests of the communities that have been neglected for far too long. Join me in urging our state representatives, attorney general and governor to further investigate these findings and address these inequities through legislation or regulations. 

Internet access touches seemingly every aspect of modern life. If these actions are allowed to go unaddressed, the outcome could have long-term impacts similar to 20th Century-style housing discrimination. 

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Raised in Cudahy, Elizabeth attended Teresa Hughes Elementary School and Elizabeth Learning Center before pursuing a B.A. in Political Science and Sociology at California State University, Long Beach....