Digital Redlining: Past and Present.

Digital Redlining: Past and Present.

Digital redlining maps of New Orleans comparing 1930 to today.
Digital Redlining in New Orleans. Compare 1930 to today.

Digital Redlining: Past, Present and a More Equitable Future. 

Many of us understand the historic practice of redlining, which started in the 1930s as New Deal programs sought to assess neighborhood risk levels for home loans. Based on racially motivated perceptions, black neighborhoods were identified as being more risky and therefore less suitable for home ownership. This process of drawing boundaries around black neighborhoods, essentially drawing them out of the opportunity to own homes, came to be known as redlining. Today, redlining is recognized as an overt and harmful practice of racial discrimination that has created an unjust gap in generational wealth for millions of black families.

Nearly 100 years later, we find ourselves with a new incarnation of an old, racist practice.  Like redlining in real estate, digital redlining is the practice of systemic under-investment by broadband companies in communities of color. Of course, some of the incumbent companies would argue that they cannot technically “redline” a community because they make their services available everywhere. This is the common argument from cable companies, which often claim that they provide cable services citywide as required by law. But access to those services is still out of reach for many residents and small businesses. Even if cable internet is physically available, it may not be affordable for all. Or worse, company policies requiring certain credit scores or a perfect bill payment history often prevent many from getting access to an account at all.

Even if services like cable, DSL and dial-up are technically available, they are now legacy products that don’t meet current demand for Internet speed and capacity. Today, we are seeing a real under-investment in high-speed broadband products like fiber-to-the-home, which provides the speed and capacity needed to learn, work and engage online.

In New Orleans, for example, many would be shocked to learn that the very same communities that were redlined out of real estate opportunity years ago are today the very same communities without access to internet.  When we look at the historic map of relined communities in New Orleans, next to today’s communities where 50% or more lack access to Internet at home, the similarity is staggering. You can read a fascinating report about the history of redlining in New Orleans here. We see how historic disinvestment in communities of color has evolved into its modern version in the form of digital redlining. This is why VERGE Internet felt a call to action in communities like New Orleans. It is time to engage communities and invest in new strategies to bridge the digital divide.

Contributors: Jonathan Rhodes and Christopher Wolff founded VERGE Internet to develop broadband and smart city solutions that promote digital equity and provide Internet for All. The views expressed in these blog posts are solely those of the contributors, aimed at fostering conversation and collaboration at the intersection of community and connectivity.

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