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FCC launches task force to address digital redlining

The agency must come up with rules by November 2023 to address discrimination by broadband companies that disproportionately leave behind communities of color.

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This story is part of Crossing the Broadband Divide, CNET's coverage of how the country is working toward making broadband access universal.

To address the problem of digital redlining, the Federal Communications Commission is forming an agency task force focused on creating rules and policies to combat digital discrimination and promote equal broadband access nationwide. 

FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel on Tuesday announced the initiative that'll involve several FCC bureaus. It'll be led by D'wana Terry, special adviser to the chairwoman and acting director of the Office of Workplace Diversity, as well as officials in the Office of the Managing Director and Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. The task force's focus will be on creating policies that combat the discrimination people face in accessing broadband based on where they live, income level, ethnicity, race, religion and national origin.

"Addressing digital discrimination and redlining is a critical piece to living up to our standard of equal access to the infrastructure needed for 21st-century success — no matter who you are or where you live," Rosenworcel said in a statement. "Your ZIP code should not determine access to broadband — which this pandemic has proven is a must-have, just like electricity or water."

The FCC's effort to address digital discrimination and redlining was mandated by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden in November. The legislation requires the FCC to adopt final rules to "facilitate equal access to broadband service." The agency has until November 2023 to adopt final rules. 

Digital redlining is a term used to describe when broadband providers purposefully leave low-income customers on slower, legacy broadband infrastructure while upgrading infrastructure in wealthier communities. It was born out of a practice rooted in the early part of the 20th century. In the 1930s, banks started developing maps to withhold loans for high-risk, "undesirable inhabitant types," who were almost always poor people of color. The redlining extended to a refusal to insure residents in low-income neighborhoods, denial of health care and decisions not to build essential facilities like supermarkets. 

While the practice of redlining by banks and other financial institutions and in real estate has been outlawed, forms of this discrimination still exist. Even Amazon has been accused of not serving poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods with its Prime same-day shipping plan. 

The decades of redlining represent a form of systematic racism that has denied generations of Black communities the kind of opportunities many other Americans enjoy, experts say. The fear is that the legacy of those maps and those practices are playing out today when it comes to accessing affordable, high-quality broadband service. Big internet service providers often focus on wealthier parts of cities where they know they can make a return on investment, while low-income communities are left behind. 

There's no federal law or regulation that makes digital redlining illegal. Broadband providers are free to build infrastructure wherever they want. And because it's expensive to do so, they often build where they have their highest return on investment, which is generally in more affluent communities that tend to be whiter. Meanwhile, they avoid lower-income neighborhoods that generally have more residents who are Hispanic or Black. But states and local governments have long held the power through franchise agreements to prohibit unjust discrimination through build-out requirements. For example, New York City has exerted this authority when it required Verizon to deploy 500,000 more fiber connections to low-income users.

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The Infrastructure and Jobs Act, which will allocate $65 billion to bring broadband to all Americans, will provide another opportunity to ensure that new infrastructure goes to areas that are unserved or underserved. The cable industry has said that it's analyzed FCC and US Census Bureau data that shows that as an industry, cable broadband providers have not discriminated based on race or ethnicity.  In a report published in September, the trade group NCTA said that cable broadband providers "have long been committed to and are continually expanding, deploying, and upgrading their networks in all communities, regardless of income or race."

According to its analysis, the cable industry said its providers offer gigabit-speed broadband service to 91% of urban households in low-income areas, as compared to 94% of all middle-income households and 90% for areas with the highest-income households. It also reported it found no difference in availability of its highest-speed services based on race or ethnicity. 

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