A map of USI's coverage area. Areas notably missing include Phillips and North Minneapolis. They're expanding in to Northeast Minneapolis, St Louis Park, and Edina next year.

Every Map Is The Same Map: USI Edition

USI has rolled out their 2022 coverage map.

This map has a striking resemblance to some other maps I’ve seen around here. Hmm.

Someone who has a username “tcarter612” on reddit posted a thread about this rollout, purporting to represent the company. Someone commented,

Any update on the hole between Franklin and Lake St. and Hiawatha and 35w? You had said many, many years ago it was in the works but the buildout has just been around this area.
Screencapped January 12, 2022.

Our thread opener responded.

Sadly we were working in that area and our crews experience constant crime issues, guns pulled on us, vehicles stolen, equipment vandalized, and serious racial slurs/threats.

We will return once things calm down, for now sadly we need to leave all the work partially completed.
Screencapped January 12, 2022.

Another response from elsewhere in the thread.

I addressed Phillips earlier in the thread, USI has spent over 500k so far building Phillips, see note:
"Sadly we were working in that area and our crews experience constant crime issues, vehicles stolen, equipment vandalized, and serious racial slurs/threats.
We will return once things calm down, for now sadly we need to leave all the work partially completed. 
If any area is an unsafe work area we will remove our crews from the area, simple. So for now Phillips will go unserved.
Screencapped January 10-11, 2022.

This post all sounds incredibly fishy to me and smacks of someone telling a tale so they don’t have to do something they don’t want to do, relying on the implicit racism of the reader to cover their tracks. “Unsafe work area” is a pretty rude way to refer to my home. What kind of dang fool would steal a marked truck? And where’s this 500k they supposedly spent? Smells like structural racism.

I did what anyone would do, living in this “hole between Franklin and Lake St. and Hiawatha and 35w” and hearing someone talk like my neighborhood’s not a safe place to be. I called the customer service line, and got a callback from a Sam Turner, who appears to be a C-level.

Sam defended the posts of this mysterious, totally unknowable, tcarter612, whose identity would not be revealed during this conversation, but who has no supervisor I can speak with. I let Sam know that I found these posts incredibly insensitive to my neighborhood. Sam said that “tone is hard to read over text” and that Sam doesn’t find the posts offensive. I’m the only one who’s said anything about these posts, so obviously, the problem is me, not the posts.

As for what kind of fool would steal a marked truck, I am to ask Inspector Blackwell at the 5th precinct. … but wait a second. The 5th is all the way over north, it’s the 3rd that’s the only relevant precinct here. And supposedly there was an incident with guns pulled on them over by George Floyd Square. Hang on, that’s not here either. And obviously there’s not going to be any record of that incident at GFS anywhere.

USI already serves George Floyd Square, so incidents there, factual or not, can’t be the real reason they’re not serving Phillips.

So, the goalposts were moved on me – the issue is that Phillips is in a “crime wave” and they can’t get any contractors to work in this area, not in the whole city. “Except Northeast?” I asked. “Yeah, except Northeast.”

Hmm. This sounds a lot like the maps I looked at that one time.

The "Best" and "Still Desirable" areas of Northeast Minneapolis are on the rollout list for 2022.
Northeast, about 1950.

“Okay, what have you tried?” “Well, we’ve tried everything. We looked in to private security, but they were too expensive. We tried talking to MPD, but the city doesn’t have the resources to support-” I cut Sam off there. “So have you put out a call for contractors willing to work in this area? Posted this trouble you’re having on social media, or your website?” “No, and we’re not going to. We’re a private company and we don’t have to do anything.”

Hmm.

“Look, you’re accusing us of redlining. We’re not! We would have gone to Minnetonka and Richfield and Edina before Minneapolis if we were just after ROI. And if we were, there’s plenty of areas we would have skipped before we skipped Phillips, like North,”

Apart from their plans to expand into Northeast, USI does not serve North Minneapolis.

Not a shred of USI coverage in all of what we know as North Minneapolis.
Unless somehow Northeast got mistaken for North in my interlocutor’s mind, this is very blank.

“See the problem is, we got a building at Snelling and Lake. Just on the other side. So right after we bought it, the city tore up a bunch of Lake and put a 5-year moratorium on building under the new pavement, and by the time that moratorium was up it was too risky to build across it.” Ah, this is the $500,000 investment in Phillips! Not in Phillips! Adjacent to it! And serving 3 of the 4 quadrants of that building’s planned service area! Including areas north of Lake.

Hmm.

Phillips is all "definitely declining" code, Seward also has "hazardous". South of Lake is mostly "still desirable" as is anything along the riverfront.
A close-up of the area around Lake and Snelling.

“You want to tell me there’s not a crime wave in Phillips? I can’t send people in there! This isn’t about ROI, it’s about public safety.” Phillips is safe enough for more than 25,000 people to live and work, but not safe enough for USI to bury some fiber.

Okey dokey. I’m not getting my public apology, my C-grade neighborhood’s not getting service, all I can do is just go ahead and point out that yes, USI, your map *is* the same map.


Is USI redlining? You make the call.

And then:

  1. Talk to your city council member, and your strong mayor, about municipal internet.
  2. Ask your city council member to look into the city’s contracts and licenses with USI and ask them to ensure they are advancing the City’s interests in equitable access to affordable, reliable high-speed internet.
  3. Bonus round for current USI subscribers: If the tone of those reddit posts isn’t what you want to see out of your internet provider, let ’em know.
Pine Salica

About Pine Salica

Pine lives in Minneapolis and works in Saint Paul. Pine hasn't owned a car for over a dozen years, and can count on one hand the number of times they've operated one in the last 12 months. Housing is a human right, car storage is not. Member of the Climate Committee.

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28 thoughts on “Every Map Is The Same Map: USI Edition

  1. Justin Heideman

    /u/tcarter612 is Travis Carter, the CEO of US Internet. He’s been on reddit for a long time and posts updates on their fiber coverage every year.

    USI also did the wireless in the city many years ago, and I’m pretty sure they covered every area of the city then. They started doing fiber about 10 years ago and expand it a little bit every year. It took them 9 years to get to my neighborhood. There have been legitimate reasons and expenses for them to expand such as crossing parkways, major roads, rivers, etc.

      1. Christopher Mitchell

        hey Bill – you know me. I’ve been working on expanding broadband to everyone for 15 years. I’ve worked with private companies, local and state governments, and the White House. I’ve been working with Travis Carter for several years to figure out how to expand Internet access in Minneapolis to the lowest income areas. Travis is the CEO and I don’t know what you mean by asking if he has a supervisor. He runs the company… the banks that lend him capital are his supervisor?

        I’ve spent years trying to find solutions and I’ve been impressed at Travis keeps trying to find solutions to these challenges. The city and county talk a lot but have utterly refused – including public housing folks – to meet him halfway anywhere. They won’t put a dollar in or otherwise help to build the lowest income areas where it will take many, many years to recover the investment – which is required before there would even be a profit.

        Travis has worked with schools to make sure low-income households had Internet access during the pandemic while the city did nothing.

        I don’t get the skepticism this writer has about the incidents. Travis and I have talked about this for years as they happened. I have tried to consult gang experts and we brain stormed many possible solutions. The people I have talked to that live in the area laughed when I brought it up, saying that the police never respond to their calls either.

        What puzzles me is how terrible it would be for Travis to demand that his crews continue to work in areas where they have legitimate fears for their personal safety. What kind of a boss would he be to tell people that while no one can protect them from the threats of violence they have faced – with guns being displayed – they have to return to that area day after day? It would be an abdication of responsibility.

        This is the latest of a series of articles across multiple media that are quick to point blame in the wrong direction. Travis runs a company that is focused on connecting people to the Internet. It isn’t a nonprofit and he doesn’t get public dollars to build in these areas. Yet he tries to find business models that will work because of his pride in Minneapolis. The city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County do nothing but what Comcast tells them to do and they never seem to come up. I work with cities across the country that are putting real money and time into projects to resolve these problems. The only thing Minneapolis’ leaders do is ask what Travis has planned.

        This is a poorly-researched article aimed at people who are already convinced that private companies must be evil. It is an easy way to get clicks but it misses the real story. And frankly, it is ignorance like that makes it hard for the few people actually trying to improve digital inclusion to get that work done.

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

          I was joking, probably shouldn’t have. Clearly Travis is in charge, and not an anonymous commenter. I wish we had affordable fiber like USI in St. Paul. I’m quite jealous of the system in Minneapolis, even though it’s incomplete.

          By the way, for those who don’t know, Chris here (commenting above) is one of the national experts on community-owned broadband networks. He’s spent around 15 years trying to get publicly owned and publicly supported broadband built in Minnesota and around the country. He also works in South Minneapolis, and is very close to this issue in a bunch of different ways.

          1. Christopher Mitchell

            Thanks Bill – I should have understood that =)

            I hope that the people who really want to see everyone in Minneapolis having high-quality, affordable Internet access are telling their elected leaders that locally. Because they sure aren’t acting like it. They perceive reality – that the people who vote most reliably have Internet access they can afford (between CenturyLink, Comcast, and USI Fiber) – and that while tens of thousands of low income families do not have it, those people are mostly talking points, not priorities. This is a difficult issue and Comcast is very good at convincing the City and County that the only viable option they have is to give taxpayers dollars to Comcast to offer its flawed but decent Internet Essential program rather than a structural solution that would really move the needle.

            1. Ian Young

              Chris, are there any current initiatives for community-owned broadband in Minneapolis, or is it still in the wishful thinking phase? I’ve been wanting this for a long time but haven’t seen much of a movement for it. I’m happy to talk to my CM (Andrew Johnson) about it, but I’m sure that he both is already informed about the topic, and won’t take any initiative on it without some outside momentum.

              As much as USI is a good company in many ways, they still are a private company. As this article and your comments highlight, we simply can’t leave equity in the hands of private for-profits and expect good results. Even if USI’s leadership sincerely wants to serve low-income areas, the incentives are not aligned for that. With Comcast using all of its muscle to try to push them out of business, I can’t entirely fault them for watching their bottom line, but it’s also not really acceptable for us as a community to let economic factors carry on the legacy of redlining.

              1. Christopher Mitchell

                Ian – there are not any initiatives in Minneapolis and across the United States, there are few in large metros. There is no precedent really anywhere for a municipal retail network (like Chattanooga famously, but others too) where there is a local provider like USI Fiber that has such high rates of satisfaction.

                There are still reasonable approaches. For instance, the city of Minneapolis could offer to build connections to homes and apartment buildings in the areas of highest poverty and lease those at very low or no cost to providers that would offer discounted connections there (each of the homes would likely also qualify for the $30/month subsidy from the national Affordable Connectivity Program, which makes this easier while that program is funded).

                The city could offer a company like USI Fiber (or other companies also willing to do it) some discounted permit fees or other incentives (such as access to city or county fiber to get to other areas) in return for specific buildout requirements. This is a typical cross-subsidy -help a company manage its losses in an unprofitable area with greater returns in areas that are profitable.

                However, these ideas will not work if the people doing the outside plant work (poles and holes) cannot do their jobs in a safe environment. As such, the city of Minneapolis really needs to figure that out. For those who think this is a fantasy, don’t forget that there are effectively many hundreds of work-hours in high-crime areas each week. It is not that everyone is threatened every day, but when one crew has a gun pulled on it, everyone gets more nervous and worries about the next time it happens.

                As I have said before though, the City and County basically think Comcast will solve the problems of poverty in Minneapolis and neither is planning to do anything except act indignant that the problem hasn’t yet been solved.

                  1. Ian Young

                    I wholeheartedly endorse that idea! I admit I would be a little jealous if St. Paul managed to outdo us on municipal services for once, but I would also be very happy for them.

                1. Ian Young

                  Thanks, Chris. I have wondered before if the presence of USI is a bit of a mixed blessing. They’re a great company in many ways, but it would be a lot easier to get people enthused about municipal broadband if everyone was still under the thumb of the awful Comcast/Centurylink duopoly. I agree with you that public/private partnerships are probably the most realistic option for Minneapolis at this point. I have to imagine that USI would be happy to more equitably distribute their expansion plans if the city could help them even out the balance sheet. I will reach out to CM Johnson and ask—he would be the right councilmember to front such an effort.

        2. Ben

          “This is a poorly-researched article aimed at people who are already convinced that private companies must be evil. It is an easy way to get clicks but it misses the real story. And frankly, it is ignorance like that makes it hard for the few people actually trying to improve digital inclusion to get that work done.”

          Agree with this completely. This article was written with a strong bias, solely relied on anecdotal evidence, and made a great deal of assumptions. I worry that it does more harm than good.

          1. Christa MChrista M

            Anecdotal evidence = asking the company to provide evidence for the ceo’s claims, and then reporting what the company provided. Okay!

      2. jsteinbronn

        It’s interesting that she wanted to talk to tcarter612’s supervisor, rather than tcarter612 himself. I’d have an easier time believing people like the writer want to change minds if their first instinct wasn’t to try to get someone fired which, contrary to what they think, is not “what anyone would do…hearing someone talk like my neighborhood’s not a safe place to be.” And I’ve never heard of the relationships within the C-suite of a company referred to as “supervisory” in nature, but it does give us some insight as to the writer’s level of familiarity with how a business operates.

    1. Monte Castleman

      Maybe instead of being “insensitive” and citing the high crime as a reason they can’t / don’t want to work in those neighborhoods, maybe they should be “sensitive” and lie and say there’s some technical reason they can’t?

    2. Monte Castleman

      I guess it comes down to if you find it more believable that employees are becoming crime victims in what are undisputedly high crime neighborhoods (unless you say the crime maps are also false or inaccurate somehow), or the CEO not wanting to serve areas where probably fewer people will subscribe to their fine array of services. I can see people taking both sides, and Occam’s Razor could go either way, but I guess I like to think people aren’t lying unless there’s hard evidence otherwise.

      1. Christa MChrista M

        This is why we shouldn’t leave communications infrastructure to private companies. As the article demonstrates, when confronted by those affected by their private decisions, they don’t have to substantiate their claims. You might reflect on why you still credit the claim despite the refusal to provide evidence.

        1. Monte Castleman

          I reflected on it and decided I’m still going to expect to see evidence from the person that accuses another person of lying ,rather than disbelieve anything anyone ever says unless they provide evidence.

  2. jsteinbronn

    I can’t imagine reading that reddit thread, including all the comments about operational nuances like permitting, subcontracting, and infrastructure investment, and thinking “This growing company’s plan for incremental expansion of an infrastructure-based service is racist until customer service sends me to someone who can convince me otherwise!” I mean, suggesting that a telecommunications company try to find subcontractors for burying line by doing a shout-out on social media like they’re looking for a lawnmower to borrow… But then the writer would have just given a condescending “Hmmm” and shown a map of a higher number of Facebook and Twitter accounts in rich neighborhoods and it’d be proof that the conspiracy goes even deeper. Imagine if the post had instead been about the local telecommunications industry, and explored how service gaps form and various private and public policies that could address them. But the writer has no clue as to how businesses are operated, and no curiosity to find out.

  3. Ian Young

    I feel like everyone is getting very hung up on the sort of nebulous excuses USI offered and losing track of what to my mind is the more important item here: the map. The map makes it pretty clear that however legitmate (or not) USI’s reasons for their buildout decisions, those decisions are tracing the same lines of economic discrimination that we have been tracing over and over since the FHA drew up their maps. I don’t think this is entirely USI’s fault, nor can we compel them to act differently. But we need to recognize that when our system provides incentives that lead a private company to make decisions that perpetuate the economic harm done by redlining, it’s a problem that all of us are responsible for dealing with.

    1. Monte Castleman

      So what solutions to you propose?

      Getting the underlying crime problem under control?
      Providing police escorts to the work crews?
      Having the city take over building fiber internet infrastructure?

      1. Ian Young

        There are many different ways to approach this sort of problem, so what I would propose would depend heavily on what sort of scale and timeline you’re asking about. Chris Harrington and I discussed a couple structural options further up in the comments, from incentivizing private companies to municipal ownership of the infrastructure.

        Since you seem to be focused on crime, though, I want to point out that I live near this area and while crime exists, the problems are not that bad. Despite what Thomas Friedman would have you believe, Phillips is not a war zone. Public Works and the power companies are successfully maintaining every other utility in that area. The reality is that USI could figure out how to safely deploy their infrastructure if they were motivated enough, and they simply are not. Probably because they will receive better returns on the same investment in other areas.

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      That’s a good point Ian. Maybe it would be helpful to see some more analysis, i.e. some data about how this map demographics compare to the city as a whole? Though certainly including Edina throws it off…

      Yeah, what Joe says (below) makes me think that a deeper dive into this might reveal more nuance about who is included or excluded.

  4. Joe

    I think this is certainly an issue worthy of deeper discussion, but I don’t think it’s dealt with too deftly here.

    Looking at the map of USI, they cover Central, Whittier & Lyndale fully, but don’t touch Kenwood or East Isles. They cover Elliot Park, but not the North Loop. They cover Cedar-Riverside, but not Nicollet/East Bank.

    There is obviously more to the story than purely redlining, otherwise all of the above would be flipped!

    So why not talk to Travis Carter and try to tell that story! You can still be critical of their avoidance of Phillips, and still scoff at their explanation. But it’d be more productive than pointing at a map which covers Central, Whittier, Elliot Park & Cedar/Riverside while avoiding Kenwood, East Isles & the North Loop and concluding that is redlining.

    1. Mike

      There have been well publicized barriers to their expansion over the years – they didn’t get across the creek to parts of SW Mpls till just a couple years ago after endless blocking moves from the park board then – so they went other directions till they got access. As you point out there are other parts of affluent Mpls untouched. As Travis explained, Lake street work became a barrier – USI has consistently spread where they could, and to dismiss their explanations and insist it must be redlining is a weak argument. I felt the author demonstrated a strong case of confirmation bias.

    2. Ian Young

      East Isles is covered and has been for some time. More generally, though, you’re correct that it’s not a perfect match.

      Most of the things you’re pointing to are for geographical reasons. USI tends to build out areas that are adjacent to existing service areas (the Northeast buildout is the first time to my knowledge that they’ve jumped to a completely new area). So areas like North Loop and Nicollet aren’t served simply because they haven’t been reached yet. But it’s also no coincidence that North Minneapolis hasn’t been reached yet! USI’s earliest service area was Southwest Minneapolis and it’s not a stretch to assume that was because it’s the largest concentration of wealth in the city. Many of the less wealthy neighborhoods you point to (Central, Whitter, Cedar Riverside) are the most recent service additions. Powderhorn and Central existed in a service gap for several years while watching USI expand in neighborhoods all around them.

      Sadly, I think the true story about why these imbalances exist would be somewhat boring. The most perfectly honest answer from USI would be “well, lower-income neighborhoods don’t generate as much revenue and cost the same to build out, so any number of minor problems are enough to delay our plans in those areas, because we’re a private company with a profit motive”. Personally, I would prefer Travis just say that and leave the vague stereotypes out of it.

      1. Christopher Mitchell

        Ian, you are right on with your comment about how USI expanded. But the most perfect answer is that they were working on Phillips this year. And even after several incidents that directly threatened the crews, they tried to continue. But after enough threats, they had to pull the crews for safety. It isn’t a stereotype – it is a fact. That fact may be based on the reduction of police interest in those areas or any number of combinations of reasons, but they have had multiple crews threatened personally, sometimes with a deadly weapon. You correctly say that Phillips is not a war zone above. But it doesn’t have to be a war zone if you have a significant number of people in an area with increased crime where young men feel empowered by the police basically not responding to calls for hundreds of hours per month. There don’t have to be a lot of these young men – which from the descriptions always seems to be the case – for them to have threatened the crews enough to make it unsafe for them.

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