Markus Flynn, the executive director of Black Men Teach, instructed a remote fifth grade science class in December 2020. Credit: Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2020

This article includes reporting and data published by The Markup, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates how powerful institutions are using technology to change our society. Read the original article, “Dollars to Megabits, You May Be Paying 400 Times As Much As Your Neighbor for Internet Service,” by Leon Yin and Aaron Sankin.

Fifty dollars a month can get you very different CenturyLink internet service depending on where in Minneapolis you live, according to a new data analysis by Leon Yin and Aaron Sankin at The Markup, an investigative tech news site.

In lower-income neighborhoods like Cedar-Riverside or Near North, you can get basic internet service of 10 megabits per second—below the federal definition of broadband. That’s the only plan CenturyLink offers in those neighborhoods; the provider doesn’t offer higher speeds there.

Yet in other, higher-income parts of the city like Kingfield or Longfellow, CenturyLink offers a range of faster options. One plan provides service of 500 megabits per second—50 times faster.

The price for this 500-megabit plan available in wealthier neighborhoods? The same as the 10-megabit plan in lower-income neighborhoods: $50—plus $15 a month to rent a modem.

Advocates say those differences in speed can determine access to education, healthcare, and the ability to run a small business.

“We live in a society right now that’s tele-everything, whether it’s health care, whether it’s education, whether it’s work,” said Minnesota state Representative Mohamud Noor (DFL–Minneapolis), who also works as a technology consultant. “Many individuals cannot even do their job because they don’t have a good network or even access to a computer.”

Ini Augustine, executive director of Minneapolis-based Project Nandi, helps low-income families access technology and internet connection. “I call lack of internet access the new Jim Crow,” Augustine said. “It’s pretty serious. It’s not just an issue of them not being able to watch Hulu TV. It’s kids that are failing in school, being held behind. Not being able to access medical care, because if you do a virtual appointment, you can get seen in two days, and if you go into the office, it’s going to be three months.”

CenturyLink is one of three major residential internet providers in Minneapolis, alongside Comcast and USI Wireless.

The investigation by The Markup, which examined more than 800,000 internet service offers in 38 cities, showed that Minneapolis has some of the highest disparities in the country. 

CenturyLink offered the slower internet speed, with no opportunity to upgrade, to 24 percent of the city’s least white neighborhoods (that is, neighborhoods with the highest percentage of people of color). Only 5 percent of the city’s whitest neighborhoods received the same offer; residents of those neighborhoods qualified for higher speeds for the same price, or even less.

The disparity was even starker by income. CenturyLink offered only the slowest internet speeds to 51 percent of Minneapolis’ lowest-income neighborhoods. Just 8 percent of the highest income neighborhoods were offered these low speeds. That gap in CenturyLink service was the largest among the 15 CenturyLink-serving cities in The Markup’s investigation

Though the speeds in those neighborhoods differ drastically, residents of low-income and high-income neighborhoods may pay the same amount for their CenturyLink service.

In the neighborhoods where CenturyLink offers only slow speeds, residents may turn to Comcast or another provider. But advocates say that the lack of competition in those neighborhoods drives up prices and eliminates promotional deals.

“People that are already struggling to make ends meet end up paying hundreds of dollars more per year,” said Chris Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Program at the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

The unequal access to service also closely followed historical redlining maps. In the 1930s, the federal government created maps that color-coded city neighborhoods they deemed “hazardous” for investment, often using explicitly racist language about that neighborhood’s residents. The practice was outlawed in 1968.

Yin and Sankin starkly summed up this practice’s ramifications in Minneapolis: “Minneapolis, which is served by CenturyLink, displayed one of the most striking disparities: Formerly redlined addresses were offered the worst deals almost eight times as often as formerly better-rated areas.”

This federal government map, produced in the 1930s, steered investment away from neighborhoods labeled as “hazardous” or “declining.” Today, neighborhoods marked in red—”hazardous”—are eight times more likely to be offered slow CenturyLink service than the “desirable” areas in blue or green. Credit: Mapping Inequality

Mark Molzen, a spokesman for CenturyLink’s parent company, Lumen, denied providing inferior internet service to certain neighborhoods. “We do not engage in discriminatory practices like redlining and find the accusation offensive,” Molzen said in a written response to Sahan Journal. “We do not enable services based on any consideration of race or ethnicity and the methodology used for the report on our network is deeply flawed.”

He added that CenturyLink’s efforts to help close the digital divide include active participation in the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which offers internet discounts to low-income households.

He did not respond to follow-up questions about why The Markup’s methodology was “deeply flawed” or whether CenturyLink takes neighborhood income levels into account when expanding services.

‘You cannot run a business from home in a 10-megabit connection’

Internet speed can determine access to many kinds of resources—and slow speed has consequences.

With a 10-megabit connection, you could check your email, browse the internet, use social media, and stream music. But you might struggle to watch a video stream or connect to Zoom. And connecting to multiple video streams—say, if you have two kids in the household trying to connect to distance learning—would prove difficult or impossible.

“You cannot run a business from home in a 10-megabit connection,” Mitchell said. “If you can only afford DSL [that is, a digital subscriber line—internet that works through your telephone line] from CenturyLink, then your kids are not having the same advantage that other kids are at school.”

Ini Augustine recalls working with someone who got a new remote job, with solid pay, during the pandemic. However, she said, “Their internet could not keep up with what their household needed, and because of that, they were let go from that job.”

Augustine recalls working with someone who got a new remote job during the pandemic, which would have paid a “livable wage.”

“Their internet could not keep up with what their household needed, and because of that, they were let go from that job,” she said. “That’s a family that could have moved out of poverty that didn’t because of lack of internet access.”

On another occasion, a parent tried to schedule an appointment for their child who was self-harming and suicidal, Augustine said. The waiting list for an in-person appointment was much longer than for a virtual visit.

“They were not able to connect to that appointment, and their child ended up self-harming and ended up hospitalized,” she said.

Who will fix the broadband-access problem? 

Solutions to the digital divide may not be simple. Mitchell pointed to past federal deregulation of the telecommunications industry as the root of unequal service.

“The telephone companies in particular took that as an opportunity to focus upgrades where they would maximize profits, which is exactly how our system works,” Mitchell said. “We should be recognizing the problem is a failed government policy.”

City and county governments will need to step up to help, he said.

“The problem of connecting the lower-income neighborhoods of Minneapolis is not one of technology, and is not one that Comcast or CenturyLink solve,” he said. “It’s a problem that’s related to poverty. And there’s a great need for networks that will be designed to meet their needs.” 

A real solution would involve not only connectivity, but access to devices, training to use the devices, and a commitment to keep it affordable, he said.

Some programs already exist to make internet more affordable and accessible, Representative Mohamud Noor noted. He has authored bills to expand broadband service statewide. He praised the Minneapolis Public Schools for providing wireless hotspots to students, which helped them access the internet at home. He also noted private sector efforts to expand internet access like BestBuy’s Teen Tech Centers, as well as the federal Affordable Connectivity Program. 

However, those efforts are not reaching enough people, he said. Data from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance shows that only about 30 percent of eligible Minnesotans have signed up for the Affordable Connectivity Program.

For Augustine, the best way to make internet companies serve all communities is through competition. Next month, she will convene a Black Broadband Summit in hopes of creating the first Black-owned, cooperatively run internet provider in the country.

“We have to start taking the power back into our own hands, and we have to start creating our own internet carriers,” she said.

Help with affordable internet

Your family may qualify for internet and computer discounts under the federal Affordable Connectivity Program. For more details and to apply:

Clarification: The photo caption has been updated to specify the current job of Markus Flynn, executive director of Black Men Teach.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...