Poor and diverse areas of Seattle and Portland offered slower and more expensive internet

CenturyLink customers in Seattle and Portland receive broad levels of service at the same price, with poorer residents and people of color more likely to be burdened by slow speeds, according to a new analysis of digital disparities in American cities.

Seattle had the worst disparities among cities surveyed in the Pacific Northwest. About half of its lower-income areas were offered slow internet, compared to just 19% of higher-income areas. Addresses in neighborhoods with more residents of color were also more often offered slow internet: 32.8% of them, compared to 18.7% of areas with more white residents.

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CenturyLink offerings in Portland were also uneven, as 27% of addresses in lower-income areas were offered speeds below the federal broadband standard of 25 mbps, compared to 16% of higher-income areas. In both Portland and Seattle, neighborhoods rated “dangerous” by mortgage lenders on mid-20th-century “redline” maps — used to discriminate against minority communities — were more likely to see the worst Internet deals in both cities today .

The disparities in the Pacific Northwest’s two largest cities were revealed in a national investigation this fall by The Markup, a nonprofit news outlet that covers technology’s impact on society, which showed that four major Internet service providers often offer slower speeds to some neighborhoods for the same price as higher speeds offered to other areas.

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The Markup analyzed service offerings from CenturyLink, Verizon, AT&T and EarthLink at more than 800,000 addresses in the largest cities in 38 states. The Markup found income-related disparities in Seattle, Portland and 17 other cities. In two-thirds of the cities where the news outlet had enough data to compare, the worst deals were offered to the least-white neighborhoods.

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In addition to Seattle and Portland, the worst offerings are in 20 other cities aligned with former redline boundaries. A spokesperson for Lumen, CenturyLink’s parent company, denied discriminatory intent and criticized The Markup’s investigation in a statement.

“The methodology used for the report you read is deeply flawed,” Mark Molzen said in an email. “We are not involved in discriminatory practices such as redline and find the accusation offensive. While we cannot comment on behalf of other providers, we can say that we do not enable services based on any consideration of race or ethnicity.”

caption: Providers offer different speeds for the same price.

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Comcast, the primary Internet service provider for both Seattle and Portland, was not included in the analysis because it does not offer different speeds for the same price, a practice known as “tiering.” EarthLink also serves Seattle and Portland, but the analysis did not show evidence of income or race-related disparities.

Local and state officials in Oregon and Washington expressed concern but little surprise at the inconsistencies unearthed in the analysis.

“I have no doubt at all that inequities exist in Portland,” said Rebecca Gibbons, strategic initiatives manager for Portland’s Office of Community Technology.

While Comcast and one or two other providers also serve the cities, the new data reaffirms that lower-income residents are stuck with the worst options, Gibbons told InvestigateWest.

“If a consumer only has one option, they’re bound to that customer service level, those fees, those rates,” she said. “We would like it to be as competitive as possible.”

Oregon Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Southern Jackson County, who sits on Oregon’s Joint Committee on Information Management and Technology, said the findings “clearly show a calculated business decision about who they will pay for the services.”

“The result is that people are left out,” she said.

Level flattening is not illegal. Although policy makers at all levels agree that broadband is an essential tool for social, economic and educational empowerment, it is not regulated as a utility, like electricity. Suppliers can set their own prices, and local and state governments cannot force them to build modernized infrastructure in areas that may be less profitable.

While advocates and government officials see an opportunity to provide additional input during the allocation of $65 billion in federal funding approved in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the money may not bring much relief to underserved urban neighborhoods.

Francella Ochillo, executive director of Next Century Cities, a national nonprofit that advocates for reliable and affordable high-speed Internet for all, said The Markup’s analysis of providers shines a light on the plight of underserved residents.

“Companies have very strong communications staff and lobbyists to make sure they convince people that you don’t see what you see with your own eyes, but we see it with our own eyes,” Ochillo said. “And we actually have the numbers to prove it.”

But looking at data is just a first step, she said.

“We have set up a system where unequal outcomes are guaranteed,” she said. “If we want a different result, we’re going to have to not only examine but dismantle some of the practices that brought us here.”

Neighborhoods left behind

The stories of CenturyLink’s expansion into Portland and Seattle now mirror each other.

In 2015, the landline company began to compete in the high-speed Internet market with cable companies such as Comcast, which controlled most of it. CenturyLink sought cable franchises and permits and began building out its high-speed Internet and cable infrastructure, officials said.

However, just a few years into its expansion in Seattle and Portland, CenturyLink’s appetite for expansion as a cable provider has flagged, officials said. Gibbons said CenturyLink pulled out of the Portland market in 2020, and the company exited the Seattle cable market in 2021, according to a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office.

CenturyLink remained an active Internet service provider, but when it stopped expanding as a cable provider, Gibbons said, “our regulatory authority to require them to build out in every neighborhood disappeared.”

As a result, CenturyLink’s rollout in both cities led to some rather lopsided scenarios.

In Portland, for example, two blocks north of the Lloyd Center on Broadway Street, CenturyLink offers an office building Internet speed of up to 15 megabits per second for $50 a month. A mile and a half southeast, in the upper-income Laurelhurst area, residents of a home on 35th Avenue can pay $20 less a month for 200 megabits per second — a lower price for speeds more than 13 times as fast .

During its time as an Internet service provider, CenturyLink has run afoul of the attorneys general of Washington and Oregon over complaints about confusing and duplicative charges. In 2020, lawsuits resulted in a $6 million payout in Washington and a $4 million settlement in Oregon.

An Oregon Department of Justice spokesman said the tiering issue does not appear to violate Oregon’s Unfair Trade Practices Act, and no cases have been filed against a broadband provider under that law.

Government officials and advocates have acknowledged practical factors that contribute to the disparities. Building out infrastructure is expensive, and businesses choose to do it in areas where they think they can make a profit on the cost.

But, Ochillo said, “Involuntary exclusion has a discriminatory impact, whether you intended it or not.

“Communities know when their students can’t go to school online, when their small businesses don’t operate with the same kind of resilience, when they don’t have the same type of telehealth options that other people have.”

Lots of money, few regulations

Internet service providers, or ISPs, also point to their participation in the Affordable Connectivity Program as evidence of their commitment to advancing digital equity.

The federal program, launched in 2021 to replace an older broadband program, subsidizes Internet for low-income households up to $30 a month, or $75 for households on Indian reservations. Many different indicators of economic need can qualify a household for participation in the program, which is administered by the Federal Communications Commission.

Entries are few. Data from mid-2022 shows that only 27% of eligible households in Portland and Seattle have signed up for the program.

Officials have given a few reasons why that might be. Marsh, the state representative from Oregon, criticized the program for being too dependent on ISPs also participating, and Gibbons called the registration requirements “way too onerous.”

Some aspects of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act suggest that the federal government is beginning to pay attention to how it can more actively tackle digital inequalities.

For the first time, the FCC began soliciting comments on digital discrimination and equity in March, including “how to implement provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that require the FCC to combat digital discrimination, and to promote equal access to broadband across the country, regardless of income level, ethnicity, race, creed or national origin.”

The Infrastructure Act funding also allows states and territories new opportunities to weigh in before awarding funding.

At the end of November, the FCC published its latest broadband map. It is the primary resource that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the executive branch office that allocates funding, will use to make decisions. The map is based on self-reported data from the ISPs.

“From what we’ve seen on the charts, they dramatically overstate what their true coverage is,” said Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a digital equity advocacy nonprofit.

From now until January, the FCC is accepting challenges from states to refine the maps. The Washington Department of Commerce and the Oregon Broadband Office have distributed news releases requesting public input on the FCC plans, including information on how to file challenges.

But there’s a caveat for Portland and Seattle: Despite the billions of dollars flowing in, most officials have expressed doubt that urban residents will see much of it.

That’s because Congress required states to first spend the money from the Infrastructure Act on areas that are “unserved” or that are considered to have no broadband access at all. Neighborhoods where an ISP already provides service, however limited, are unlikely to be touched until the rural, remote areas are taken care of.

This is a sore point for city and state officials.

“Yes, rural communities where there is absolutely no access — we need to prioritize them,” Gibbons said. “But if you look at the numbers of communities and use an equity lens, you have black, indigenous people of color, people with disabilities, the majority of them live in urban communities.”

Ochillo said federal policy shifts are needed for widespread change.

“The ISPs mentioned in the report get a lot of government subsidies,” she said. “If we know they get … public funds, why don’t we set up systems where they have to be accountable to the public?”

Instead, she said, “We’ve set up a system where unequal outcomes are guaranteed.”

InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit organization dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Reporter Kaylee Tornay can be reached at [email protected]


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