Kenneth McKissack’s internet is like a finicky turtle.
It’s always slow, and sometimes it decides to barely move at all — taking minutes instead of milliseconds to open emails.
As a pharmacy technician and insurance specialist who works from home, McKissack estimates he spends at least two hours of work time per week waiting on this turtle to crawl. It’s a near-constant annoyance.
He’s explained to AT&T multiple times that he needs faster internet for his work. But the company’s representatives have told him he has the quickest connection they can offer in his area.
On his street in the Messick Buntyn neighborhood southwest of the University of Memphis, the company only offers download speeds of 10 megabits per second, according to research by The Markup, a nonprofit news organization that covers technology. That’s less than half of the FCC’s definition of broadband and a fraction of the country’s median home internet speed of 167 Mbps.
Messick Buntyn, a majority-Black neighborhood, has a median income of about $23,000 and is bordered on its northern end by a railroad. North of the railroad, AT&T has installed the infrastructure to offer the residents of East Buntyn — a majority-white neighborhood with a $76,000 median income — 300 Mbps, according to The Markup.
And it charges the same price — $55 per month.
“That’s very disturbing and disheartening,” McKissack said when told about the difference. “That’s upsetting, especially with it being a couple of streets over.”
This disparity shows up across the city. The Markup analysis found a major disparity between the speeds AT&T offers in low-income versus high-income Memphis neighborhoods. This difference increasingly puts people such as McKissack at a serious disadvantage as jobs, education and other parts of daily life move further online.
In lower-income parts of the city, AT&T offered internet slower than 25 Mbps to 43% of the addresses The Markup analyzed, compared to just 11% of addresses in upper-income areas.
AT&T spokesman Jim Kimberly told MLK50: Justice Through Journalism that the company doesn’t look at race or income when deciding where to install faster networks. Instead, it looks at where its customers live, population growth, density, competitors and costs. When asked why the company charged the same price for the vastly different speeds, he said AT&T has to spend significantly more operating and maintaining its older, slower networks than its newer ones.
“Any suggestion that we discriminate in providing internet access is wrong,” he said in an email. “We’re leading the industry in connecting homes and businesses with fiber. At the same time, we know there are still many communities across the country that lack access to high-quality connectivity or the means they need to participate online, and we can’t solve this issue on our own.”
Christopher Lewis, president and CEO of the nonprofit Public Knowledge, said he doesn’t doubt that AT&T’s decision-making process doesn’t include race or income. However, he said the company shouldn’t be allowed to use any process that has the effect of leaving behind low-income neighborhoods, given the importance of high-speed internet.
One of the factors mentioned by the AT&T spokesman — population growth — is frequently related to race and income in Shelby County, with its persistent cycles of segregation and white flight. By disproportionately neglecting low-income, slow-growing neighborhoods, internet providers can pile onto the existing economic challenges there, Lewis said.
“You can’t underestimate the importance for economic development and economic opportunities of everyone being connected to broadband,” said Lewis, whose organization is lobbying for greater federal regulation of internet service providers such as AT&T.
When told of The Markup and MLK50’s findings, the economic impact was the main concern for Martavius Jones, a City Council member whose district includes McKissack’s home. He said he generally sees the internet as a great force for equality because of its ability to spread economic opportunities far and wide.
Britney Thornton, the Shelby County Commissioner for McKissack’s district, said it was frustrating to learn that her constituents were being unfairly treated in a way they don’t even realize.
“Poor people are disadvantaged by what they don’t know,” Thornton said. “(When) I don’t know my neighbor is getting a greater capacity than me at the same price, I’m just going to live my life with whatever you told me was the cost for the service. … If it’s slow, I’ll just be accustomed to a 30-minute download.”
Thornton also pointed out that while some of her constituents have signed up for an internet subsidy through the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, others still don’t know it exists. Through the ACP, families can receive $30 per month for their cell phone or internet bill if they earn less than 200% of the federal poverty level — which equates to about $40,000 per year for a family of two or $60,000 per year for a family of four. In Shelby County, about 57,000 households have enrolled in the program out of roughly 90,000 that would qualify.
Many Memphians also don’t know they can use a map built by the Federal Communications Commission to explore which internet providers offer the fastest speeds in their neighborhood. (However, this map is prone to errors, according to multiple news reports.)
According to the map, McKissack would have much faster internet if he switched to Comcast. However, people on his street with Comcast also complained of slow and unreliable internet.
“Maybe once or twice a week it will go out … (while) my daughter’s doing homework and I’m watching TV,” said Stephanie Caldwell, a mother of three who lives a few doors down from McKissack.
Caldwell said a Comcast maintenance woman told her recently that her issues are caused by the company’s aging infrastructure on her street.
When told about faster speeds on the other side of the tracks, she wasn’t surprised but was frustrated.
“When I call, I always tell them … I need the best service you got and I’m going to pay for it,” she said. “For it not to be, it kind of hurts.”
Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.