IN: Is AT$T avoiding poor, minority neighborhoods?

Posted on February 22, 2008 - 1:22pm.

from: The Times

Is AT&T avoiding poor, minority neighborhoods?

by Charles Emory | Wednesday, February 20, 2008

With the 2008 presidential primaries well under way, we know this election season will be remembered in large part for its innovative use of the Internet. Fred Thompson and Barack Obama announced their candidacies via Web videos, and when Hillary Clinton unveiled her health care plan to cover the millions of uninsured she claims are "invisible" to the current administration, she did so via Webcast.

But for more than half of American households -- those without the high-speed Internet, or broadband, necessary for watching video on the net -- the debate is passing them by, rendering them "invisible" in yet another way.

To be sure, leaders at the federal and local level are working feverishly to spread broadband across the nation, reforming existing programs to support infrastructure investment, and experimenting with new ideas like the "Connect Kentucky" model that has helped increase the demand for broadband services in that state.

But here in Indiana, we seem to have hit a roadblock on the path to broadband ubiquity. As reported in the Indiana Business Journal, AT&T is alone among broadband providers in refusing to divulge where it has deployed its fiber-optic U-Verse service. So the public has no way of knowing which households can access the lightning-fast service capable of delivering broadband, television and phone -- and which households are being left behind, perhaps because of their income, race or geography.

AT&T contends its refusal to report this information stems from a desire to ward off competition from other cable and broadband companies. But with every other provider complying, it seems that something else might be rotten in the state of Indiana -- and everywhere AT&T serves -- that should give each of us reason to pause.

More than a year ago, Indiana lawmakers supported video franchise reform legislation promoted by AT&T on the grounds that lower cable prices and widespread deployment would occur. So we exempted AT&T from the historic anti-discrimination rules that required cable operators to serve everyone in their footprint. We overlooked AT&T's comments to its investors that only "high value" customers would get new U-Verse services and the eerily-prescient comments by Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, that "phone company executives will not commit to serving all rural and low-density areas. They will not commit to serve middle and low-income consumers. They will not commit to serve communities of color."

Yet, to date few communities can get U-Verse, and the scarce information about which ones can get it does not bode well for our national goal of closing the digital divide. User-generated information on (probably the best and only public information available) conspicuously shows a dense concentration of U-Verse service in high-income areas and little coverage in low-income and rural neighborhoods. Indeed, it almost depicts a bright line separating wealthy suburbs of Indianapolis and the minority inner city areas.

One commentator dryly noted in the Journal, "AT&T doesn't want it widely known that it's targeting more affluent, more densely populated areas that are more profitable."

If that's the case, then public officials -- those with the ultimate obligation to protect consumers against egregious corporate malfeasance -- should find AT&T's refusal to divulge information about its U-Verse deployment all the more troubling. Our Legislature passed video franchising reform legislation in order to bring competition to all residents, not just the wealthiest. The bill of goods AT&T was selling did not indicate we would forgo any public oversight or that we would relinquish the ability to know which communities have been wired with the next generation of broadband services that every expert agrees are the lifeblood for commerce, education and entrepreneurship in the 21st century.

As if to add veneer to its image, the company has wisely donated to legitimate community and nonprofit organizations working to bridge the digital divide, winning plaudits in the press. Here in Indiana, it has committed to billions in upgrades and new jobs.

But laudable philanthropy and promises of investments should not exempt broadband providers from public interest obligations to offer service to all types of residents, and should not gloss over the concern that AT&T might be impairing our nation's competitive future by segregating neighborhoods and betraying the bipartisan vision of universal broadband.

Our elected leaders ought to act now to remedy AT&T's startling lack of cooperation and candor with regard to its fiber build-out. The public deserves some level of disclosure to ensure that broadband discrimination does not occur, and if the company refuses to comply, then lawmakers ought to revisit the video franchising legislation that exempted AT&T from the build-out obligations to which every other provider has adhered.

Charles Emory is pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Gary. The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's and not necessarily that of The Times.

( categories: AT&T | INDIANA | State Franchises )