An investigation published today by nonprofit investigative newsroom The Markup proves what many Detroiters have complained about for years: internet companies serving the city offer poor service for comparably high prices.
Reporters Leon Yin and Aaron Sankin gathered and analyzed nearly 1 million internet offers from AT&T, CenturyLink, Verizon and EarthLink in 38 cities across America, including Detroit. All four companies routinely offered faster internet in some neighborhoods, while charging the same price for connections below 25 Mbps in other areas, a speed the Federal Communications Commission says is so slow it does not qualify as broadband service.
The providers offered the faster internet speeds to neighborhoods that were whiter than those stuck paying the same amount for slower internet.
In Detroit, almost 40% of internet offers The Markup reviewed were for slow speeds below 25 Mbps. Only 14% of offers were for speeds above 200 Mbps, or “blazing fast” speeds.
“I’m happy these findings are out there,” Joshua Edmonds, Director of Digital Inclusion for the City of Detroit told Outlier. “Now we can empirically prove what some people have dismissed as subjective for quite some time. Detroiters don’t have the internet they deserve.”
Years ago, internet providers used to offer cheaper prices for slower internet speeds. That practice has largely disappeared as providers adopted “tier flattening,” policies, where customers pay the same price for service regardless of speed. The Markup investigation only included wirelined internet service providers, not 5G or satellite providers, that used tier flattening.
This practice doesn’t allow Detroiters to pay more for faster or more reliable internet speeds and doesn’t keep Detroiters who already pay high prices from being stuck with slow and unreliable service.
“When you understand how internet prices are billed then people should start getting angry,” said Edmonds.
The providers examined in The Markup investigation all pushed back against its findings. AT&T spokesperson Jim Greer said, “Any suggestion that we discriminate in providing internet access is blatantly wrong,” without mentioning how the investigation was flawed.
Detroiters can use The Markup’s methods to investigate whether internet providers are offering faster service for the same price in other neighborhoods. The Markup used a method developed by Princeton University researchers to analyze the price and speed of internet offers. Using the lookup tools on internet companies’ own websites it is possible to find and compare available plans for specific addresses. The Michigan Public Service Commission also has resources for residents interested in quickly and easily testing their own internet speed.
Yin said Comcast, one of Detroit’s most ubiquitous internet providers, does not use tier flattening and was therefore not included in the investigation. But he stopped short of reassuring Detroiters using that service that they were being treated equitably by the company. “We don’t know if Comcast or other internet providers have disparities in where they offer the best deals and where they offer services that are unaffordable and unreliable,” he said.
The disparity in internet pricing and speeds between formerly redlined communities and other places is now clear, but reasons beyond the persistence of systemic racism for the continued inequity remain difficult to pin down.
The price of internet service is not regulated by the state or federal government so there is little transparency into the pricing decisions internet providers make. Unlike phone or cable television service, broadband service is not considered a utility.
The industry has said a lack of fiber internet is an issue, leaving them with broadband that is more expensive to maintain. The U.S. government is preparing to invest billions allocated through the recent bi-partisan infrastructure deal into faster internet service throughout the country.
As it stands now Americans pay more for slower internet than those in other advanced economies, slowing economic progress. In Detroit, unreliable internet has made it difficult for children to learn at home and for adults to work remotely.
The city of Detroit is using $45 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to patch some of the gaps in service left in Detroit by private internet companies. Edmonds said these companies “are partners, but at the same time not good enough” at providing fast and reliable internet to Detroit.
About $11 million of the ARPA money will be spent to install publicly owned high speed fiber internet infrastructure in Hope Village, one of the neighborhoods featured in The Markup investigation. The hope is that this pilot program will be the building block for Detroiters to have more choice in and get more value from internet service providers.
There are other ways for Detroiters to work towards faster and more reliable internet, said Yin, who mentioned shopping around, contacting City Council, complaining to the FCC and complaining directly to internet providers as possible methods for increasing accountability on this issue. Locally, the Detroit Community Technology Project is running an equitable internet initiative to create and maintain wireless infrastructure that can be maintained and owned by community members.