The red line that won’t fade

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Please see our February 2016 blog post for an update

A few months after Fairfax County gave Verizon approval in October 2005 to offer cable TV and Internet service in the county, a company representative visited my office and excitedly told me Verizon would be rolling out more than 300 cable channels and high speed Internet access in our area as soon as the summer of 2006.

Verizon did rollout fiber-optic broadband internet access, which it calls Fios, within inches of our apartment complex, which is located right off Richmond Highway, a main regional thoroughfare. But it never provided service to the mostly poor black and Latino residents that live in the apartment complex, although it hopes to do so this year.

Our experience with Verizon mimics that of poor and minority consumers in Newark, NJ, where tens of thousands of low-income households don’t have access to Verizon’s high-speed internet service, allegedly because of a loophole in state law that permits the communications company to withhold service when it claims it can’t gain access to the property.

Verizon has said that in New Jersey, many landlords voluntarily opted-out of Fios service and chose other broadband and cable TV providers.

In our case, we were eager to have Fios service. And Verizon initially seemed interested in providing it—that is, until they visited our site. What’s more, the company appears legally bound to provide such service to all Fairfax County residents.

In a 2006 filing with the Federal Communications Commission, for example, Fairfax County’s Office of Consumer Affairs stated that the country’s “three franchise agreements guarantee that deployment of competitive cable services and any upgrades of existing cable systems will be made available to all households within a franchise area.” When the county granted Verizon a franchise in 2005, it gave the communications giant seven years to build out its system in the county.

On December 15, 2015 I called and sent an email to Richard J. Young, Verizon’s director of external communications and media relations, seeking comment about why it has taken so long for Verizon to provide service to our site and also to enlist his help in speeding up the installation of Fios on our site. He did not respond.

Verizon only showed interest in wiring Spring Garden Apartments about three years ago after I called a friend of mine, who had been Verizon’s former government lobbyist. Within months, the company had engineers visit Spring Garden and had a site plan approved.

Since then, things have bogged down. We have had conduit and cable installed for Fios service. But the service has not been turned on and Verizon has not indicated when that might occur.

Having competitive broadband service is not just a matter of status and convenience, especially for poor consumers. The General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) stated in a 2003 report that “cable prices were as much as 15% lower in areas in which incumbent cable operators faced head-to-head competition from another wireline cable provider.” What that means is that while most Fairfax County residents have enjoyed the benefits of price competition between Verizon and the county’s other cable TV provider, Cox Communications, poor people at Spring Garden Apartments have not benefited from that competition for the last decade.

The practice of banks and other institutions circumventing black and Latino communities in favor of predominantly white neighborhoods, is called “redlining” and is often spoken of in the past tense. It is seen as a disparaged practice of a long-forgotten bygone era. But it takes vigilance to make sure the battles for equality our society thinks it has won, stay won. And we need to insure that lawmakers, regulators and businesses alike, embrace that view.

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One comment on “The red line that won’t fade
  1. Over and over, phone and cable companies have delayed extending service to “red lined” area, only to discover later that those were where some of their best customers lived and worked. Decades ago in New York City, there was a race to “wire” affluent neighborhoods; when the entire city was wired, some of the highest use of HBO and other premium services was in the Bronx and other areas that vwere last to get cable service. Then there is the example of cell phones in Africa: The big companies thought mobiles would only be for e small number of rich people. That left an opening for an African cell phone entrepreneur, Mo Ibrahim, to become a billionaire by serving millions of the non-wealthy.

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