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Can Cleveland finally close its digital divide? A local nonprofit says it has a plan.

 Rolando Alvarez installing radios atop Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority's Scranton Castle building in Cleveland's Clark-Fulton neighborhoods. [DigitalC]
Rolando Alvarez installing radios atop Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority's Scranton Castle building in Cleveland's Clark-Fulton neighborhoods.

By Afi Scruggs, The Land

Oscar Lawrence didn’t know how much he needed the internet until last year, when he connected with DigitalC, a nonprofit providing low-cost internet service to Cleveland residents.

Now he uses the internet to run his plumbing business. He also researches countries he visited while in the Navy.

Lawrence, 83, got internet access and training on how to use it through a program the nonprofit runs with the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority, which owns the Euclid Beach Gardens senior citizen highrise where he lives. The program, aimed at cultivating new internet users, is part of DigitalC’s strategy to go from serving 1,160 households in 2021 to 40,000 by 2025.

“I didn't get involved until they [CMHA] forced me down to the community room two years ago and made me sit down in front of the computer and said, ‘Here. This is yours when you finish,’” Lawrence said.

Cleveland’s twin problems of poverty and access have made it the most disconnected major city in the country. According to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s analysis of worst connected cities, some 30 percent of residents in 2019 had no access of any kind and 45 percent lacked higher-speed cable, fiber optic, or DSL hookups.

“We had been bouncing around in the top five least-connected cities since the data started to be collected around 2016,” said Dorothy Baunach, CEO of DigitalC. “And not only are we the least connected American city, we are the poorest American city, and have the highest rate of child poverty. They're all connected.”

DigitalC started five years ago as a scrappy underdog. Now, it is poised to become a true leader. In July, the nonprofit received $20 million from the Mandel and Myers foundations. It is also competing for part or all of $20 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds that Cleveland City Council has dedicated to providing citywide broadband.

Right now, though, DigitalC is at least $50 million short of the $70 million the nonprofit says it needs to expand. It also must surmount technology and infrastructure issues if it is to reach its goal of providing broadband in each of Cleveland’s 34 neighborhoods.

Not only are we the least connected American city, we are the poorest American city and have the highest rate of child poverty. They're all connected. - Dorothy Baunach, CEO of DigitalC

Marketing is another problem. Today, DigitalC is only serving 1,160 households, a far cry from the 130,000 it envisions serving. Cleveland has roughly 170,000 households according to the latest Census figures. To reach that goal, the nonprofit is implementing a plan that includes reaching 40,000 households.

The organization used June to November of last year to find contractors and design its network, according to planning documents they provided. After taking a break during the winter, DigitalC would start this spring to deploy its expanded network, and turn to recruiting customers.

The only holdup is raising money through public-private partnerships, Baunach said.

“We've got the plan. We've got a financial model, and we’re confident that we've got the right technology,” she said.

What is DigitalC’s product?

So far, DigitalC has offered subsidized access to CMHA residents and low-cost broadband to six communities: Hough, Glenville, Fairfax, Central, Buckeye-Woodland, and Clark-Fulton. These are low-income neighborhoods where the internet is unaffordable, or where corporate internet service providers offer slower broadband speeds, if they offer high-speed internet at all.

Radios atop the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Justice Center in Cleveland's Fairfax neighborhood. [DigitalC]

DigitalC aims to provide stable, affordable broadband while educating potential customers on how to use it. Although it targets low-income residents, the nonprofit doesn’t ask for proof of income. Instead, it offers high-speed connections far faster than what’s commercially available in those neighborhoods to all who apply, for $18 a month. Corporate providers charge $60 to $70 per month.

The organization relies on a wireless network that Baunach calls a “ring in the sky.” The primary conduit is millimeter wave technology, which offers download speeds as fast as 1 Gbps, or one gigabit per second. Those fast speeds make gaming and streaming a breeze. And that speed is far faster than the 10 Mbps (megabits per second) or less the customers get from corporate providers. That’s just enough for one user on one device to email, make phone calls or stream low-quality video.

However, millimeter wave technology doesn’t penetrate buildings well and can be blocked by foliage. That’s a problem in Cleveland, the so-called “forest city.” Another option is to transmit the signal over citizen broadband radio services, a spectrum that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently opened to non-military uses. Between these two technologies, DigitalC is able to offer consistent download speeds of 50 Mbps and upload speeds of 20 Mbps, Baunach said.

Drew Lenn, a DigitalC customer [DigitalC]

Quality and affordability are what convinced Drew Lenn to switch to DigitalC when it offered service in Fairfax two years ago. He said he learned about DigitalC from a neighborhood newsletter. He was the seventh customer to sign up.

Lenn, a landlord and homeowner, said he was paying a corporate provider about $60 a month because his internet was bundled with other services. He said he was lucky to get six Mbps downloads but couldn’t find another provider offering better because he lived on the “wrong side of the tracks.” Lenn said his internet was too slow even to download documents for tenants in his duplex in the Buckeye neighborhood.

“Life was difficult enough with a six megabit internet,” Lenn said. “I had to go to the library to do certain things that I couldn't get done here. And then the pandemic hits.”

Monica Malik, a Cleveland resident near the main campus of the MetroHealth system, was in a worse predicament. She couldn’t get internet service of any sort until DigitalC left an advertising placard on her door.

“I was trying to get (corporate broadband) and they said it was not accessible at all,” she said.

But Oscar Lawrence exemplifies one of the obstacles the organization must overcome. He belongs to the 14 percent of Clevelanders who are 65 or older. Additionally, more than one-third of the city’s residents are poor. Although internet use among both cohorts has improved over the last two decades, both groups remain far less likely than the rest of the city to have home-based broadbandor even a computer.

DigitalC isn’t the only entity tackling lack of access

A solution suggested by the Greater Cleveland Partnership and NASA Glenn Research Center proposes building a mesh system that would blanket the city with multiple points of Internet. To do that, about 20,000 routers would be installed on utility poles in several neighborhoods. The network would offer basic service, according to Steve Oleson of NASA’s design lab.

By far the most ambitious solution is proposed by ConnectedNEO. The grassroots organization wants to “ build a fiber backbone, via a “fiber highway,” into each of Cleveland’s 34 neighborhoods.”

That “backbone” would support mesh networks in each of the city’s 34 neighborhoods, and residents would connect wirelessly. The upside is speed and stability. ConnectedNEO’s proposal provides a “minimum of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds and 25 Mbps upload per user; (emphasis added) which is upgradeable in the future.”

Other cities have created municipal-owned entities for residents and businesses.

Fairlawn, Ohio decided fast, stable broadband was essential for its growth. But the Akron suburb couldn’t get corporate providers to improve their networks, despite the affluence of its residents. So in 2016, the city built its own. FairlawnGig offers 1 to 10 gbps upload and download speeds at a cost of 7.5 cents per customer. Installation cost $10 million and was financed with revenue bonds.

Literacy is a big problem in the United States, and digital literacy is a subset of that. For those population groups that aren't connected, there's a significant number that don't have the skills, and there needs to be training. - Blair Levin, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution

In Ohio, more than 30 municipalities created their own networks as an alternative to corporate providers. They are following the lead of Chattanooga, Tennessee, which became the nation’s first city with a gigabit network in 2012. Three years later, it became the nation’s fastest city with its 10 gigabit network.

But corporate internet service providers attacked municipal-owned broadband in the wake of Chattanooga’s success. Here in Ohio, the state senate’s version of the last budget included a stealth provision banning government-owned providers. That amendment, which was stripped, would have put almost all the current municipal-owned networks out of business.

Rolando Alvarez installing radios atop Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority's Scranton Castle building in Cleveland's Clark-Fulton neighborhood. [DigitalC]

Cleveland has actually experimented with municipal broadband before. “Old Brooklyn Connected” is a free wifi network launched in 2012 by former Ward 13 council member and city council president Kevin Kelley in this Cleveland west side community. He used federal money to finance a network for his constituents. The network is still in place but is primarily designed to help residents accomplish basic, necessary tasks, said Jeff Verespej, executive director of the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corp.

“We want kids to be able to do their homework, and folks to be able to check their email and their medical records,” he said. “It's not a gaming system. It's not a high powered research system. It is your basic day-to-day internet activities.”

Almost a decade later, the service still exists. But its weaknesses show the limits of its approach.

Deficiencies are also inherent in the technology. The wifi network relies on antennas throughout the ward. Those antennas send the signal to hubs, which then transmit it to fiber downtown. Proximity to an antenna determines the quality of the network.

Given its track record, can DigitalC achieve its goals?

While DigitalC’s tiered technology addresses the deficiencies of networks like Old Brooklyn, the nonprofit has another issue. It doesn’t meet its benchmarks. The organization set a goal of connecting 8,000 households of Cleveland school students by June 2021. So far, they’ve connected 548. Spokesperson Jim Kenny said the problem was money.

“When DigitalC shared the goal in August 2020 it was with the expectation that public funds dedicated to closing the digital divide would have been distributed before June 2021,” he explained, referring to American Rescue Plan Act funding. “Unfortunately, these dedicated funds remain undistributed.”

The organization also has to convince its target audience to use the web, a marketing challenge the organization has struggled with.

Every resident of CMHA’s Scranton Castle senior residence in Tremont gets the internet for free, courtesy of DigitalC. The cost is subsidized by Dollar Bank and other sponsors, Baunach said. Getting residents to actually go online was another matter.

EmpowerCLE's Brand Ambassadors recruiting residents at a community event in Cleveland's Hough neighborhood. [DigitalC]

Everyone got a refurbished computer, but the machines weren’t always able to connect. Sometimes the devices were never opened, because residents were afraid to use them. Language was also an obstacle. Many residents didn’t speak English and needed translators.

“I learned a lot with that experience,” Baunach said.

Cases like Scranton are why digital literacy is a significant part of DigitalC’s mission. Its program EmpowerCLE marries technology and training.

The approach isn’t unique. Nationwide, lack of digital literacy is an impediment to connectivity, said Blair Levin, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“Literacy is a big problem in the United States and digital literacy is a subset of that,” Levin said. “For those population groups that aren't connected, there's a significant number that don't have the skills and there needs to be training.”

Baunach guessed that those who don’t have internet service simply don’t see the need for it. That might have been the case with Oscar Lawrence, the 83-year-old plumber. Ten years ago, a friend raved about being online, but even that wasn’t enough to convince him to try it himself.

For one thing, Lawrence said being online seemed like a diversion.

“I was busy standing on my feet, working with my hands, so I could eat,” he said. Plus, he has daughters who are online. If he needed something, he could ask them to help him.

“Anything I want to know, I would just call them,” Lawrence said. “I’d call them if I needed a new pair of shoes. I’d call them if I wanted to know what happened 10 years ago.”

Now, though, thanks to his internet hookup, Lawrence has become a plumbing consultant. When potential customers call, he uses the Web to diagnose problems and give estimates.

Lawrence, in other words, has crossed the digital divide, thanks to DigitalC. The question now is whether DigitalC has the capacity to help thousands more make that same journey.

To learn more about Digital C’s internet services, visit https://www.empowercle.org/.

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This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative. NEO SoJo is composed of 18-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including WKSU and Ideastream Public Media. Afi Scruggs is a freelancer in Cleveland, Ohio.