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Oklahoma City’s Underserved Face Uphill Battle for Internet

Despite close proximity to high-tech companies, some within Oklahoma City limits are without the high-speed connections afforded to their neighbors. ISPs say connecting some of the communities would be too expensive.

by Dale Denwalt, The Oklahoman / October 27, 2020

(TNS) — If Jacob North and his neighbors were reduced to a statistic, they are among nearly 15% of Americans living without residential high-speed Internet access, also known as broadband.

North doesn't live in rural America, where government policy focuses most of its attention on building new connections. The Oak Grove neighborhood where he lives sits squarely in the Oklahoma City metro, just a few miles from downtown.

It's also next door to Dell EMC's high-tech office building, where North works as a software developer.

Major internet service providers have broadband infrastructure nearby, The Oklahoman learned, but these providers were never linked to older homes on North's side of the street. It's like living next to water, but you can't get a drink.

"It's a simple fact that we're labeled as low-income. That's why they won't bring Internet out here and it's not fair," North told The Oklahoman.

UNAFFORDABLE 'LUXURY'

The homes at Oak Grove are administered by the Oklahoma City Housing Authority, and the people who live there have rent subsidized by the government.

OCHA Executive Director Mark Gillett understands the problem his residents face. Even if they can personally afford better Internet, like a fiber connection that can reach download speeds of 1 gigabit per second, Internet providers generally won't install the connections.

"Low-income housing, public housing, the large Section 8 developments were not wired initially," Gillett said. "I don't think any of our public housing developments in Oklahoma City currently have anything close to fiber."

Internet service providers (ISPs) won't shoulder the cost of that infrastructure alone, Gillett said, so the housing authority would have to chip in. Connecting every apartment in the Oak Grove neighborhood would cost the agency $250,000.

With several residential developments across the city housing hundreds of families, OCHA can't afford to rewire them all.

"If you look at the history of affordable housing being built in the United States, (Internet) was considered a luxury. And now it's no longer a luxury, it's a necessity," Gillett said.

CRITICISMS OF PROVIDERS

ISPs face criticism for neglecting poorer neighborhoods, with some research describing the lack of infrastructure available to low-income residents as digital redlining, a modern mashup of a term historically used to describe how racial minorities were prevented from owning homes in some neighborhoods.

In 2017, several Cleveland, Ohio residents filed a Federal Communications Commission complaint against AT&T, alleging communities with high poverty rates were deprived of high-speed Internet access. AT&T argued its decisions were based on the cost of deployment and demand for services.

The complaint was ultimately dismissed by both parties in favor of mediation.

But Ohio isn't the only place with discrepancies. Research by Oklahoma State University Professor Brian Whitacre found similar disparity in Dallas County.

Without fiber-enhanced broadband improvements, poor Dallas neighborhoods were relegated "to Internet access services which are vastly inferior to the services enjoyed by their counterparts nearby in the higher-income Dallas suburbs," he wrote in a report commissioned by the Cleveland residents' attorney.

ISPs have a profit motive and are more likely to build infrastructure based on where it's most profitable, Whitacre told The Oklahoman.

"From an equity standpoint, it's absolutely not fair because those people are denied the same type of access that higher-income neighborhoods have," Whitacre said. "And that can absolutely have impacts on things like their ability to do job searches, obtain health information, all kinds of things."

AT&T directed questions from The Oklahoman to trade association USTelecom, where a spokesman said all communities in the United States deserve access to high-speed Internet.

"Broadband providers are investing nearly $80 billion annually to connect communities, upgrade infrastructure, bolster speeds and innovate across their networks," the statement read. "Especially during the pandemic, the value of connectivity has never been more clear, but private investment alone can't finish the job of connecting every home and business — that's why we need our government partners in Washington to make necessary investments to ensure all communities have access to the Internet."

EXPANSION PLANS AND CONTINGENCY PLANS FOR STUDENTS

Access to high-speed Internet grew significantly in recent years, with even more wired connections and the proliferation of smartphones on wireless networks.

Internet providers spent more than $1.7 trillion since 1996 connecting service to customers, according to USTelecom. The group lobbies Congress to support even more investment throughout the country, but most policy discussions focus on the lack of rural infrastructure.

More than 20% of Oklahoma County households don't subscribe to high-speed Internet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent data on Internet use. That could be a personal choice, or because it's too expensive. Both Cox and AT&T, two of Oklahoma City's largest providers, offer discounted rates to low-income households in areas where service is already an option.

Cox spokeswoman Christine Martin noted Oak Grove was built long before anyone thought about residential Internet, and that building connections to multiple family units there would be incredibly costly.

"We have infrastructure in all economic areas of this city," she said, noting that Cox has pledged $60 million over the next year for digital learning, and is offering two months free for new customers in its low-cost plan.

Even though broadband availability has seen explosive growth over the past decade, outliers remain. For residents of Oak Grove, the best Internet just isn't available despite several ISPs serving the area. The best, most widely available options include satellite-based Internet or aging digital subscriber line (DSL) connections through their telephone jack, which maxes out at one-tenth the speed of fiber optic connections.

But DSL is nearly dead. AT&T announced this month that it would stop offering it to new customers, further limiting the options available for neighborhoods with no wired fiber connections. USAToday reported the company had 653,000 existing DSL subscriptions this year, compared to over 14 million fiber-based connections.

To help bridge the gap for OCHA residents, Gillett had Wi-Fi installed at several of the housing authority's community centers. As the school year approached, he made sure people in each family housing development could access Wi-Fi, but only from the parking lot to ensure social distancing. Residents there are using it for online schoolwork, he said.

Oklahoma ranks near the bottom of states for Internet access among schoolchildren. An analysis of census data shows over 41% of K-12 students, roughly 285,000 children, don't have adequate Internet connections at home. The State Department of Education distributed 50,000 wireless Internet hotspots in July to help close that digital divide.

A SMALL VICTORY

North, who's molded himself into an advocate for the community where he lives, said he recently secured a high-speed connection after months of calls to Internet providers and local government officials pleading for help.

But it will be a business-tier account, not residential, and the introductory price will be $129 per month for 50 megabits-per-second of download speed. It's a full 25 times faster than his current service for about the same price.

"And then in six months, I'll be paying $200," North said. "Now that I have fast Internet, I'm going to stay here because I am going to college and stuff like that. It's going to help me out personally, and I do have a kid."

He'll also keep banging the drum for his neighbors who aren't lucky enough to secure the same service.

"I'm the only one that has time to do it, and I have the skills to do it," he said. " It's more for the families who are low-income, and that's a simple fact."

©2020 The Oklahoman, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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