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Poor, historically redlined neighborhoods in Milwaukee pay more for slow internet

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It's part of a nationwide trend in which poor, less white areas get the worst internet deals.

Your internet service — how fast it is, how much you pay — might depend on where you live in the city.

In Milwaukee, poorer neighborhoods and neighborhoods that were historically redlined are more likely to get worse internet deals. It's part of a nationwide trend in which poorer, less-white neighborhoods are paying more for bad internet service.

That’s according to a new analysis, published by the Markup and the Associated Press, that looks at internet service offers to more than 1 million addresses across the country, including Milwaukee.

It complicates a picture of the digital divide in the city, where many already can’t afford internet at all.

“Within the city of Milwaukee, we know that there are dozens of Census tracts where at least 25% or more households report not having home internet,” said Dave Berka, who manages the Techquity project for United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County. The initiative aims to expand digital access across Milwaukee and surrounding counties. Those tracts, Berka noted, are predominantly African American or Latino, and they’re also among the city’s lowest-income areas.

The analysis examined offers from Milwaukee's two major internet providers: EarthLink and AT&T.

Internet speeds are measured in megabits per second, or Mbps. The FCC standard for broadband speed, or high-speed internet, is 25 megabits per second. But that’s a lot lower than the average home internet speed: 167.

The cost of each megabit, it turns out, can range a lot.

Data from the Markup’s investigation shows that, for the same price of $60 a month — the cheapest plan available — EarthLink offered different Milwaukee households plans from 3 Mbps to 100. And for $55 a month, AT&T offered anywhere from 0.8 Mbps to 300.

On a single street in Harambee, for example, a household on W. Clarke Street was offered an AT&T plan of 18 Mbps for $55 a month. Two blocks east, on E. Clarke, another house was offered an AT&T plan of 300 Mbps — 16 times faster — for the same cost.

That means customers with slower internet service are being asked to pay much more for each megabit.

The analysis found that those customers were more likely to live in Milwaukee’s poor neighborhoods. AT&T, for instance, offered slower internet plans to about 4 times as many homes in poor neighborhoods than in wealthier neighborhoods.

Customers who lived in historically redlined neighborhoods also got bad deals. About 20% of them were offered slow speeds for the same price as neighborhoods without a history of redlining.

Berka said the pandemic put the necessity of inclusive internet access in sharp relief. Today, school, work, health appointments, and personal finances increasingly require internet access.

“Having affordable access to these resources is so absolutely crucial to having a thriving community, a thriving economy, a thriving place where people can live lives and flourish,” he said.

He noted the importance of not just internet service itself, but also larger devices like computers and tablets, depending on the users’ needs.

“I’ve heard stories of kids writing term papers or papers for school in the Notes app on their phone and trying to send that to teachers, or taking pictures of handwritten pages,” Berka said.

People with disabilities also often find themselves on the other side of this digital divide.

Brian Peters is the assistant program director of independent living services at Independence First, a Milwaukee-based organization that serves people with disabilities. He noted that people with disabilities tend to be economically disadvantaged, both under-employed and unemployed.

“It becomes very difficult for people with disabilities to access the internet,” said Peters, who is deaf. “And that is a problem today because there are so many things online.”

Peters works with many people who have either very low or fixed incomes.

“For some people $60 is not a huge deal,” he said. “But then we look at other individuals who are on a fixed income. $60 is a huge part of their income. If they don’t receive good service for the $60 that they’re spending, why would they continue to want to pay that? A lot of people choose not to.”

But that service is critical for people as they seek housing, look up bus routes, apply for jobs, or simply try to join a Zoom meeting at work.

During the early pandemic, Independence First helped provide people with internet hotspots as well as computer and internet classes for those who were less familiar with them. That work continues, Peters said.

A federal low-cost internet service program is currently helping low-income families pay for devices and high-speed service. The Affordable Connectivity Program offers a discount of up to $30 a month for internet bills, or $75 on tribal lands, as well as money towards laptops, computers, or tablets.

According to data released in August by the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, just half of 131,639 eligible households in Milwaukee have enrolled in the program. Statewide, Wisconsin is lagging in enrollment, with 28% of eligible households participating.

You can find eligibility guidelines and apply at the program website.

That, of course, requires internet service. United Way is helping people apply, and internet access is available at libraries across the city.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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