A house in the Audubon Park neighborhood of northeast Minneapolis, once redlined by federal agencies, pays $50 a month to CenturyLink for internet service with speeds up to 80Mbps.
Not far away, in a neighborhood that wasn't redlined, that same $50 to CenturyLink buys high-speed fiber internet with speeds up to 200Mpbs.
Similar differences have been found in other Minneapolis neighborhoods as well as cities throughout the country, according to data released and analyzed by the tech news nonprofit the Markup. But Minneapolis has "one of the most striking disparities" among 38 U.S. cities examined, the nonprofit found.
"Formerly redlined addresses were offered the worst deals almost eight times as often as formerly better-rated areas" in Minneapolis, the report said. The group's analysis focused on CenturyLink in Minneapolis, the provider offering the most fiber service in the city, but did not compare service offers among other providers in town.
In cities across the country, people living in homes in redlined areas got worse dollars-per-megabit internet deals, according to the nonprofit, which analyzed more than 800,000 internet service offers from AT&T, Verizon, EarthLink, and CenturyLink. It found that "all four routinely offered fast base speeds at or above 200Mbps in some neighborhoods for the same price as connections below 25Mbps in others." The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband as 25Mpbs or more.
Redlining was a government-backed effort that segregated Black families into particular neighborhoods deemed "undesirable" by the now-defunct Home Owners' Loan Corp. Though the practice was outlawed in 1968, the impacts remain, affecting homeownership, education and other quality-of-life issues.
In formerly redlined areas of Minneapolis, the high cost of internet service or frustrations with the available options means some residents are simply going without.
A Star Tribune analysis of American Community Survey data from 2016-20 found that households in formerly redlined areas of north and central Minneapolis have the lowest percentages of broadband cable, fiber or DSL subscriptions and highest percentages without internet service. These trends spill into historically "yellowlined" areas, or those graded a "C" by the Home Owners' Loan Corp. as another warning against investment.
In Hennepin County, more than 21,000 people have computers at home but no internet, the data shows.
The Affordable Connectivity Program, an FCC program that provides low-income families with $30 a month toward internet service and $75 a month for households on qualifying tribal land, helped Tia Williams and her four children afford home broadband for the first time this year. Before she learned about the vouchers, her family relied on her Uptown apartment's shared building Wi-Fi and hotspots. After school, everyone wanted to use the internet at the same time.
"It was really stressful, honestly, not having access to internet," Williams said. "It affected a lot of different things for my family."
The Markup's findings were disappointing but not surprising to Minneapolis information technology director Dana Nybo, who hears technology concerns from community members through the city's 311 system.
"I think that COVID created a real accurate reckoning of what we have to do to really support the people in the community," Nybo said. "Everybody may have thought, 'Oh, we've got access to the internet,' and we've realized, what does that really mean? And what do you truly need versus what you actually have."
As a decadeslong CenturyLink customer, LaToya White's household was offered $45 a month for 500Mbps of internet download speed as part of their "Price for Life" plan. But when she ran her most recent internet speed test, she said, the meter would go no farther than 48Mbps.
The low speed makes it a challenge for her family to do activities many take for granted: work from home, watch a show and do homework. When the pandemic sent White's children home from school, she said, they relied on hotspots to get their work done.
"One uses the cellphone; one uses the little box," said White, who lives in a formerly redlined block of northeast Minneapolis. "Streaming for my household is hard. You can't play Netflix and Hulu."
During unrest after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Ini Augustine saw how the digital divide could even be life threatening when people needed safety information in real time. Augustine started Project Nandi, a nonprofit that provides families with laptops, internet and tech support, when the community was heavily affected by unrest and remote learning during the pandemic.
"This is a structural issue," Augustine said. "This isn't a black and white issue or even a technology issue. There are structural barriers built into the system that they're profiting from, that are keeping people out of having high-speed internet."
Over the past two years, Augustine has worked with more than 200 families, including some whose jobs or health have suffered because of missed work or telehealth appointments due to slow internet speeds.
Companies "sold people a service that they were told was high-speed, that was not," Augustine said. "They gave people access depending on where they live, and redlined people that were in poor communities. In my opinion, they owe those people rebates, and they owe those people reimbursements."
CenturyLink, which rebranded as Lumen Technologies in 2020, said in an email that the company does not engage in discriminatory practices, such as redlining. Spokesman Mark Molzen said Lumen does not enable services based on race or ethnicity and noted its participation in affordability programs. The company did not respond to follow-up questions.
"We are committed to helping close the digital divide and actively participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program, which offers a discount of $30 per month on internet service," Molzen said in an email.
Other service providers cited household density in their decisions and noted the high cost of maintaining older equipment used for slower speeds, according to the Markup.
In March, the FCC announced an inquiry into digital discrimination after President Joe Biden's 2021 infrastructure and jobs bill required the agency to combat digital discrimination and promote "equal access to broadband across the country, regardless of income level, ethnicity, race, religion, or national origin," according to a news release.
Minneapolis, Hennepin County and Minneapolis Public Schools are partners in a coalition focused on increasing access to digital tools and literacy programs to economically disadvantaged residents and residents of color. To reach them, they are piloting programs to install antennas on school and county property in lower connectivity areas and leveraging the Affordable Connectivity Program.
Soon, digital navigators will be on the ground throughout the city — at schools or public housing, for example — meeting residents who struggle with internet access, Nybo said.
Augustine is dreaming bigger. She envisions someday creating a Black-owned community broadband network.
People who have struggled with internet access, nonprofit leaders and other community members gathered Thursday to learn about digital equity and the history of other cooperatives around the country.
"We allow monopolies for internet service because internet isn't considered a utility like it should be," Augustine said. "It should be like water. If you want to be a modern citizen of the world, you need high-speed internet. Otherwise, you're automatically a second-class citizen."