May 2, 2024 - News

Study: SF Chinatown gets slower internet for same price

Photo of two people shopping in Chinatown streets decorated with red Lunar New Year lanterns and fans

People shop at a fair in San Francisco Chinatown in last year. Photo: Li Jianguo/Xinhua via Getty Images

Residents of Chinatown — where almost 33% of people live below the poverty line — still struggle to access affordable and reliable internet, a new analysis finds.

Why it matters: Almost half of Chinatown's households don't have an internet broadband subscription — and those that do report "slow and unreliable" service, according to an analysis of 105 San Francisco addresses by the advocacy group Chinese for Affirmative Action.

Context: Anisha Hingorani, policy manager at CAA, tells Axios that the issue of digital equity landed on the group's radar during the pandemic amid an influx of clients trying to apply for unemployment benefits.

  • "It became really clear ... that internet access was a big barrier," Hingorani said.

What they found: In its report, CAA alleges that AT&T, one of San Francisco's largest internet service providers, charges high-poverty and low-poverty addresses the same amount despite providing slower plans for the former.

  • In one case study, CAA found that residents at a North Beach address were offered maximum internet speeds six times higher than the maximum speeds offered to residents at a Chinatown address for the same cost, despite the 0.4-mile distance between the two.
  • While aging infrastructure limits internet speeds in Chinatown, advocates say it's unfair to charge the same price as those receiving higher speeds.
  • AT&T spokesperson Megan Ketterer said in an emailed statement that the company, which has challenged allegations of discrimination, charges the same price by speed tier nationwide but noted issues like permitting and older infrastructure can inhibit upgrades to faster, more reliable internet.

State of play: These systemic inequities are a "function of the historical disinvestment that Chinatown has faced for many generations," including dense development and a lack of language access and technical support, Hingorani noted.

  • While 23 million households nationally received financial help with internet bills through the COVID-era Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), that funding is set to expire in June without congressional action.
  • "The affordability gap is only going to get worse" as ACP winds down, says Vinhcent Le, technology equity legal counsel at the Oakland-based public policy nonprofit Greenlining Institute.

Between the lines: Digital redlining is a term advocates use to show how communities hurt by historical practices of redlining are also being hurt by a lack of internet access.

  • It reflects a "profit-seeking behavior" that prioritizes higher-income neighborhoods because they're a faster means to recouping investments in infrastructure upgrades, Le tells Axios.
  • The Federal Communications Commission adopted rules barring "broadband discrimination" last November, though how they'll be enforced remains unclear.

The big picture: There's growing awareness that broadband is an essential service and should be treated as a utility like electricity, Le notes.

  • Despite San Francisco's reputation as a tech hub, over 100,000 people lack broadband home internet or basic digital skills.
  • CAA is calling on officials to establish a digital equity scorecard as previously promised, and to require all internet service providers operating in the city to publish guaranteed minimum speeds.

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