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Report: Internet providers offer Louisville residents unequal speeds for similar prices

100217_Cable Wires_Courtesy of Dina Lydia via Unsplash
Dina Lydia via Unsplash
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Louisville residents are paying similar internet service rates for different download speeds.

Louisville neighborhoods with high portions of lower-income and minority residents are paying similar rates for worse internet speeds than others, some just minutes away.

The Markup, a national nonprofit publication, reported last week that many Americans are being offered worse deals by internet service providers depending on where they live.

The reporters analyzed more than 800,000 internet service offers made to specific addresses — focusing on houses — across nearly 40 cities, including Louisville. They defined slow internet speeds as below 25 megabits per second, and moderate or medium speeds as 25-99 Mbps.

Four internet service providers were examined in the report, two of which — AT&T and EarthLink — offer service in Louisville.

The plans in Louisville offered above-average download speeds compared to other cities using AT&T and EarthLink. The Markup’s research found that Louisville ranked near the top when it came to the portion of total advertised speeds at or above 100 Mbps for AT&T’s $55 and EarthLink’s $50-$60 monthly internet plans.

However, the research also discovered that Louisville had some of the highest disparities in how frequently less affluent and less white neighborhoods were offered lower download speeds than their counterparts.

It found that 35% of addresses in the city’s lower-income areas received slow AT&T offers, compared to 4% in upper-income areas. And 34% of lower-income addresses had slow EarthLink offers, compared to 7% of upper-income addresses. 

Louisville addresses in the areas with the lowest proportions of white residents also had worse offers from both providers than those in the whitest areas, while areas that were historically redlined to prevent Black people from living in the same neighborhoods as white people got worse offers than areas promoted for investment.

Click on the items in the legend in the interactive map below to see where each tier of internet service is prevalent. In Louisville, much of the service offered at the slowest speeds is downtown, as well as west and south of it.

“There are definitely practices that have created institutional biases and institutional racism that persist today,” said Grace Simrall, Chief of Civic Innovation and Technology for Louisville Metro Government.

Simrall said the consequences of redlining extend to current internet access and affordability. 

She said there’s not much that governments can do to regulate service. The internet is not a public utility in the U.S., and prices are set by companies. EarthLink did not provide WFPL News with a comment on the report’s findings.

When asked if AT&T has worked to provide faster speeds and speed-based pricing in Louisville, a company spokesperson said in an emailed statement it had invested more than $750 million in Kentucky to provide wired and wireless networks between 2019 and 2021.

The spokesperson said AT&T’s fiber option, which offers higher internet speeds than traditional cable, is available in various Louisville neighborhoods, and that the company offers income-based discounts.

The Markup reported that an AT&T representative told them “any suggestion that we discriminate in providing internet access is blatantly wrong,” and that the company had cited “business-case challenges” to the Federal Communications Commission in explaining internet access gaps.

But the reporters also found that, even after adjusting for population density, competition and broadband adoption rates, which could motivate companies’ financial decisions, connection disparities in cities often remained.

That was the case for Louisville, where adjusting for the three factors actually increased disparities in speed between what AT&T offered in redlined areas compared to other parts of the city.

Advertised speeds, whether high or low, may differ from actual speeds. Simrall said network improvements can help make internet connection more robust.

“Knowing that there is this opportunity through things like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to be able to get federal subsidies around improvements to their network infrastructure is definitely of interest to these private entities,” Simrall said.

Though Simrall said government officials can do little to influence prices, she said the city has worked to improve internet affordability and access, including through the federal Affordable Connectivity Program. The program offers a monthly internet service discount on one device for low-income households.

According to federal data presented by the city, more than 50,000 households in and around Jefferson County are currently enrolled in the program. Another federal initiative allows ACP-eligible households to receive a $30-a-month high-speed internet plan, offering at least 100 Mbps downloads, from more than a dozen providers, including AT&T and Spectrum in Louisville.

Ricky Santiago, the city’s digital inclusion manager, said dependable internet connection is crucial following the pressures of COVID-19.

“Now after the pandemic, more families are relying on the internet for their success. And actually, their digital readiness signals pathways to success,” he said.

In 2020, the city completed the first phase of the Louisville Fiber Internet Technology project, adding 100 miles of fiber-optic cable to the city.

This July, FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel proposed increasing the national standard for high-speed internet download speeds from 25 Mbps to 100 Mpbs.

Jacob is LPM's Business and Development Reporter. Email Jacob at jmunoz@lpm.org.