AT&T accused of ignoring lower-income Cleveland neighborhoods’ broadband needs

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AT&T is facing heat from a nonprofit group, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), which has accused the telco of passing over lower-income Cleveland neighborhoods when it made recent broadband upgrades in the area.

NDIA calls this “digital redlining,” a process of income-based discrimination carried out against lower-income neighborhoods. 

Citing newly released FCC Form 477 Census block data for June 2016, NDIA claimed that AT&T has not upgraded the majority of Cleveland neighborhoods with high poverty rates, including Hough, Glenville, Central, Fairfax, South Collinwood, St. Clair-Superior, Detroit-Shoreway, Stockyards and others.

RELATED: AT&T takes heat for opting out of Lifeline broadband program

NDIA said AT&T has not extended its U-verse FTTN (fiber to the node) network to most of Cleveland’s Census blocks, including the overwhelming majority of blocks that have individual poverty rates above 35%.

NDIA’s analysis is part of a six-month effort begun after the organization found that residents of many Cleveland neighborhoods were being declared ineligible for AT&T’s “Access” discount rate program because they couldn’t get AT&T connections at the 3 Mbps download speed that was then the program’s minimum requirement.

By not making the necessary upgrades to support AT&T's VDSL2-enabled services, NDIA said that many Cleveland residents can only get spotty, slow connections.

What’s more, these communities can’t get the U-verse TV service that AT&T promised Ohio communities in 2007 in exchange for “cable franchise reform.”

AT&T’s low-income broadband work has been controversial. The National Hispanic Media Coalition and other groups slammed AT&T in November for opting out of the Lifeline broadband program.

The service provider told FierceTelecom that it disagrees with the report and that it has continued to make network upgrades to support broadband services throughout Ohio and in Cleveland.

AT&T said in Ohio we invested nearly $1.5 billion in our wireless and wired networks during 2013-2015, with more than $325 million of that in Cleveland.

“Access to the internet is essential, which is why we've continuously invested in expanding service and enhancing speeds,” AT&T said in a statement to FierceTelecom. “The report does not accurately reflect the investment we've made in bringing faster internet to urban and rural areas across the U.S. While we are investing in broadband, we’re also investing in technologies that will mitigate some of the infrastructure limitations.”

While AT&T said it will continue to support the inclusion of broadband within the modernized Lifeline program, it filed for forbearance from the Lifeline broadband internet access service requirements.

In April 2016, AT&T launched the "Access from AT&T" program to provide inexpensive home wired internet service to Americans who live in the carrier's 21-state service area and who participate in the U.S. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). At least one resident must participate in SNAP, and cannot have outstanding debt with AT&T connected to internet service or the Access program.

As part of the Access from AT&T program, the telco is also offering an in-home Wi-Fi modem through the program and access to its 30,000 public Wi-Fi hotspots nationwide.

This article was updated on March 13 with additional information from AT&T.