About 10 years ago, the telcos and the cablecos argued that they needed “franchise reform” to deploy fiber to the home high speed broadband. Anyone offering cable services (which, at the time, were a necessary part of any bundle including broadband — yup, times change) needs to get a franchise. At the time, all franchises were local. They also usually required the franchisee to serve the entire franchise area with same quality service. This requirement to serve the entire service area with the same quality service is called an “anti-redlining” provision. It is designed to ensure that providers of service do not avoid traditionally unserved communities (particularly communities of color), who were on the wrong side of the “red line” drawn by real estate developers to separate the whites only neighborhoods from the “colored” neighborhoods. (For more info, see this clip from Adam Ruins The Suburbs.) While we no longer have laws mandating segregation, the combination of stereotypes about urban neighborhoods dominated by people of color, combined with the unfortunate economic reality that non-whites systemically earn lower incomes than whites often means that providers simply ignore these neighborhoods when they offer services and focus investment on whiter (and wealthier) areas. Anti-redlining laws are designed to prevent that from happening.
To return back to the mid-00s, telecos (later joined by cable cos demanding a level playing field) pushed states to reform their franchise laws to (a) replace local franchising with state franchising; and, (b) eliminate most of the requirements of the franchise — including eliminating the anti-redlining provisions. The carriers argued that OF COURSE they intended to provide FTTH everywhere, including communities of color. But if they had to deal with local franchise authorities dictating deployment schedules and demanding all sorts of conditions to get a franchise, then — gosh darn it — they just would not be able to invest in FTTH no matter how much they wanted to do so. Although I and my then employer Media Access Project worked with the handful of local and national orgs fighting repeal of local franchises generally and anti-redlining provisions specifically, we lost bigly.
Today, I am once again feeling the Cassandrefreude. As predicted 10 years ago, in the absence of anti-redlining provisions, carriers have not invested in upgrading their broadband capacity in communities of color at anything close to the same rate they have upgraded in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. As a result, the urban digital divide is once again growing. It’s not just that high-speed broadband is ridiculously expensive, although this is also serious barrier to adoption in urban areas. It’s also that in many low-income and predominantly non-white neighborhoods, speeds on par with those offered in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods are not even available.
This problem is further compounded by the belief that we have solved the problem of urban deployment and the only places where deployment (as opposed to simply cost of access) remains an issue is in rural America. But while the problems in rural America are very real, we need to recognize that the digital divide problem is actually growing in urban areas as carriers rush to provide gigabit speed in some neighborhoods while leaving other neighborhoods in the digital dust.
With the focus on 5G deployment, however, we have a rare opportunity to avoid repeating past mistakes. Just once, just once, we could actually take steps to prevent the inequality before it happens.
Anyone following the 5G debates knows that one of the hot areas of contention is local zoning rules and other issues related to getting approval for small cell deployment. “Small cells” are a shift from large cell towers serving relatively large geographic areas (size dependent on terrain) to much smaller cellular arrays packed closely together lining streets and highways. Wireless folks call this network configuration/deployment “densification,” and you can watch this short clip from IEEE if you want to learn more. (“Small cells,” btw, is a relative term. We’re still talking about something pretty heavy if it falls on you and pretty ugly if you have one outside your bedroom window. Hence the zoning fights.) This densification/small cell deployment will help to enhance capacity and reduce latency, in theory enabling gigabit fixed and mobile wireless. Verizon in particular is looking to deploy fixed 5G to compete with cable broadband outside its FIOS territories.
History Begins To Repeat Itself.
As anyone familiar with the history of telecom deployment could predict, carriers are clamoring for state governments and federal government to preempt localities and give them a totally free hand to deploy as they wish. As usual, carriers boast of the wondrous and awesome services thy plan to deploy. They warn that time consuming negotiations with parochial local authorities who either want to ban deployment for aesthetic reasons or encumber deployment with painfully slow approval processes and mountains of forms. Not only will this deny people totally awesome new networks, but China and/or Europe will totally deploy ahead of us, dominate the industry, and reduce us from world leader to techno-backwater. As a consequence, we see the FCC and various state and federal legislators rushing to “streamline” the local deployment process and give carriers unrestrained discretion on deployment.
Left to itself, we can expect the pattern of history to repeat itself. Carriers will rush to invest in “high return” (read: wealthier and whiter) neighborhoods while underinvesting — or bypassing entirely — “less desirable” (read: poorer, non-white) neighborhoods. I expect supporters of total deregulation will argue that mobile carriers already serve these communities and therefore they have every incentive to upgrade these communities. That was, after all, one of the arguments used 10 years ago to get “franchise reform” eliminating anti-redlining rules. In response, I point out that the shift from cell tower deployment to small cell changes the economic equation. Deployment of traditional cell towers to cover large areas means that a single tower will overlap several neighborhoods. Small cells, like fiber-t0-the-home, requires much more localized and intense deployment. Because the economics of small cell deployment are more similar to fiber deployment than to traditional mobile deployment, we should assume that — absent any requirement to the contrary — we should expect the same pattern of investment in whiter wealthier neighborhoods and non-investment in poorer non-white neighborhoods.
We Can Learn From The Past And Stop Digital Inequality Before It Happens.
While I am not generally a fan of preempting localities, I have to say that the concerns of the carriers are not entirely baseless. As companies like Google have discovered time and again when trying to deploy new services, incumbents can manipulate local processes to delay competitive deployment and drive up cost. Additionally, while cities have valid concerns about safety, aesthetics and ensuring universal access, you also get some place like Berkley where the wireless anti-vaxxer crowd will fight tooth and nail to prevent any deployment of new wireless technology.
We don’t have to make this an all or nothing approach, where we either do nothing to facilitate deployment of small cells or give the carriers total discretion to do as they wish. We can follow what had been the very successful model of telephone and cable service prior to “franchise reform” and condition getting permission to deploy on mechanisms to address potential digital redlining. In San Jose, for example, the city is making its light poles available to AT&T and Verizon for small cells in exchange for commitment for $500 million in broadband infrastructure. While less wealthy communities may not be able to secure quite so large a price tag, localities have other tools at their disposal to ensure that small cell roll out and the benefits of 5G happen in an equitable manner that prevents traditionally redlining. For example, localities could offer providers a choice between an expedited process and/or access to locally owned resources in exchange for an enforceable timetable guaranteeing deployment in all communities by a date certain. Carriers that don’t want to accept the benefits could rely on a more traditional process and negotiate with individual landlords rather than have access to municipal assets.
The point is, it’s not an all or nothing trade off between streamlining deployment or protecting traditionally redlined communities. Localities have many carrots and sticks at their disposal. Rather than rush in to preempt localities (most of whom are eager to make these new networks available to their residents), state and federal lawmakers should encourage localities and carriers to work together to develop workable plans that strike a reasonable balance between the economic realities of investment and the responsibility of local governments to ensure access to high speed broadband to everyone in a just and equitable manner.
As a wise man once said: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” We can learn from the past and take steps to prevent the inequality before it happens, rather than try to close the gap after history repeats itself. We can even get creative and find new ways to make sure that traditionally redlined communities see timely deployment of affordable services on par with those available in wealthier, whiter areas.
Or we could once again “trust the market” and hope that, for some unknown and mysterious reason, things will turn out differently this time.
Stay tuned . . .