Broadband Redlining Complaint Filed Against AT&T at FCC

Attorney Daryl Parks has filed a formal FCC complaint against AT&T on behalf of three African American low-income residents of Cleveland alleging digital redlining.

The complainants—Joanne Elkins, Hattie Lanfair, and Rochelle Lee—allege that "wealthier and predominantly white areas have gotten premium upgradable high speed broadband access at bullet speed," while the three complainants "receive slow speeds at a rate as low as 1.5 mbps downstream or less, although they pay AT&T for high speed access."

They say that is unjust and unreasonable discrimination in violation of the Communications Act. They also allege that is part of a pattern of discrimination by AT&T nationwide, relying on a study by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

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The parties say they met with AT&T in July, which "flatly" denies that it is redlining, hence the suit. The complaint concedes AT&T offered to expand a 5G wireless broadband pilot program, but says that is not sufficient.

The FCC's definition of high-speed broadband is 4 Mbps downstream.

Parks and company want the FCC to investigate the charge, including holding a hearing, which would likely be before the FCC's Administrative Law Judge, and they want damages.

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The complaint is being hand-delivered to the FCC, according to Parks.

Back in May, the broadband access advocates at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) alleged that AT&T has discriminated against low-income Cleveland neighborhoods in deployment of home internet and video over a decade.

It said it was basing that "digital redlining" charge on FCC data from June 2016, as well as "city construction permits and other information" that it says shows the company "withheld fiber-enhanced broadband improvements from most Cleveland neighborhoods with high poverty rates – including Hough, Glenville, Central, Fairfax, South Collinwood, St. Clair-Superior, Detroit-Shoreway, Stockyards and others."

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NDIA said it began the six-month mapping analysis after some residents were being told they were ineligible for a discount rate program because they were not getting the minimum 3 Mbps speed needed for the discount.

"The report does not accurately reflect the investment we've made in bringing faster internet to urban and rural areas across the U.S.," said an AT&T spokesperson at the time. "While we are investing in broadband, we’re also investing in technologies that will mitigate some of the infrastructure limitations.”

An AT&T source speaking on background said that the company had invested $135 billion on wired and wireless networks between 2012 and 2016, including nearly $1.5 billion in its Ohio wireless and wired networks in 2013-2015, with more than $325 million of that in Cleveland.

Two weeks later Parks, unpersuaded by AT&T, pledged a multi-front campaign against the telco and on behalf of Cleveland low-income residents. Parks, who gained national prominence as the attorney for the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, was denied a request to speak at an AT&T board meeting about the issue.

"[In] the near future," he said back in May, he planned to certify a class-action suit, bring a formal redlining complaint at the FCC, and "raise with the nation’s governors the issue of AT&T’s suitability to manage the emergency communications service FirstNet." That is the interoperable communications network AT&T has a multibillion-dollar government grant to provide and manage.

James Meza, AT&T senior VP and assistant general counsel, said in a letter to Parks in response that the company takes the complaint seriously, has invested $135 billion over the past five years to ensure "Americans of all income levels" can get internet service, will continue to expand its Ohio networks, and is promoting broadband adoption by low-income customers.

“We do not redline," AT&T regulatory and state external affairs executive VP Joan Marsh reiterated Wednesday following the complaint's filing. "Our commitment to diversity and inclusion is unparalleled. Our investment decisions are based on the cost of deployment and demand for our services and are of course fully compliant with the requirements of the Communications Act. We will vigorously defend the complaint filed today.”

(Photo via Bill Bradford's Flickr. Image taken on March 4, 2016 and used per Creative Commons 2.0 license. The photo was cropped to fit 16x9 aspect ratio.)

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.