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City Lawmakers Join Call For FCC To Investigate Digital Redlining

A WiFi and power button on a router. On Tuesday, six members of the Baltimore City Council signed a letter asking the FCC to investigate digital redlining.
Iain Watson/Flickr
A WiFi and power button on a router. On Tuesday, six members of the Baltimore City Council signed a letter asking the FCC to investigate digital redlining.

Six Baltimore City council members have joined nearly 100 officials from cities across the U.S. in calling on the Federal Communications Commission to investigate digital redlining.

Kristerfer Burnett, Zeke Cohen, Mark Conway, Ryan Dorsey, Antonio Glover and Odette Ramos signed a letter to Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel demanding the launch of a commission to study how a lack of access to digital resources such as the internet can worsen socioeconomic inequities. They were joined by peers in Detroit, Denver, New Haven, Philadelphia and elsewhere.

“In the 21st century, the Internet is a vital utility,” Cohen said at a news conference. “We are tired of predatory providers like Comcast holding Black and brown children's education for ransom in a pandemic. We are sick of seeing seniors unable to make telemedicine visits or sign up for the vaccine because their connection is too slow.”

Cohen called Rosenworcel a “champion for equity,” pointing to her recent creation of a task force to identify what communities lack access to broadband internet services. The Democrat said he expects her to be a partner in expanding internet access.

The letter criticizes Comcast, which has a franchisee agreement with Baltimore City that digital divide advocates have framed as a monopoly, in particular. Lawmakers cited Comcast’s decision to charge customers $10 for every 50 GB of data they use after hitting 1.2 TB in data usage. Comcast has defended the fees, saying that very few customers exceed 1.2 TB each month.

“This type of fee is akin to a regressive tax that impacts poor communities and cities like Baltimore—primarily communities of color the most,” the letter reads. “The audacity to raise the prices in a pandemic and to continually ignore the needs of Black, Brown, and low-income communities in cities across the United States isn’t just an ethical failure; it merits a full investigation into patterns and practices that constitute digital redlining.”

The effects of redlining, a discriminatory housing practice from the early 20th century that segregated neighborhoods by race and class, still looms in Baltimore, Councilman Dorsey said.

“When we talk about digital redlining, we’re talking about corporate policy that places profit motive over the public good,” he said.

The letter called on Rosenworcel to reclassify broadband internet as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. Doing so would allow the FCC to regulate internet service as a utility and establish more thorough consumer protections.

The letter is the latest move by city progressive Democrats to draw attention to the lack of access to high-speed internet connections across Baltimore, where 40% of households lack wireline internet service, according to a 2020 report from the Abell Foundation. A disproportionate amount of those Baltimoreans live in majority-Black neighborhoods.

The coronavirus pandemic has made internet access a more vital resource than ever, as students attend online-only classes and access to telehealth, vaccine appointments and unemployment insurance benefits is largely dependent on stable internet connection.

“It's very essential in our lives, and yet it is treated as a luxury by being distributed across lines of race and class,” said Kimberly Vasquez, a senior at Baltimore City College High School and an organizer with Students Organizing a Multicultural and Open Society..

Her family uses Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, a discounted internet service package that the company says can handle multiple video conferencing streams at a time. Vasquez said Internet Essentials is instead a “brick wall between me and my education.”

“It's a constant battle for me and my younger sisters to even enter the waiting room of our classes and be able to stay online,” she said.

Comcast doubled the speeds of the program earlier this month after pressure from Vasquez and other advocates, but that is a far cry from solving the underlying issue of the digital divide, she said.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.