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'Digital Redlining' Coming To An End In Cleveland's Fairfax Neighborhood

Beverly Williams is among the first residents to sign up for new low-cost broadband service in Fairfax. [Justin Glanville / ideastream]
Beverly Williams checks her mobile phone.

After years of enduring slow, spotty internet service in their neighborhood — the subject of reports accusing providers of digital redlining — residents of Fairfax will have access to high-speed, wireless broadband connections in their homes beginning this fall.

The new service will be powered by an antenna to be installed at the top of the Juvenile Justice Center. Internet signals will be beamed from the antenna directly to devices installed on people's homes, said Adam King of  DigitalC, a technology nonprofit partnering with Cuyahoga County to offer the service.

Customers will pay $18 a month for internet, King said. That compares with an average monthly internet cost of $60 on the private market.

The antenna will increase speeds in the neighborhood to about 50 megabytes per second — fast enough to handle most common internet activities.

That's welcome news for Beverly Williams, a Fairfax resident who is among the first wave of customers to sign up for the new service. She says her current service is unreliable at best.

"It blurs out, it blanks out, or it'll freeze," she says. "I thought it was because I live in a new building, but other people have [problems] as well."

The spotty connection hinders her, Williams says, because at 68 and with a diabetes diagnosis, she relies on her internet-connected phone and tablet for "everything" — from reading to scheduling senior transportation to keeping track of her medications to making doctors' appointments.

About 800 households will be potentially covered by the faster service, and about 42 Fairfax residents have so far signed up, said Denise van Leer, director of Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation, the local neighborhood development group. She expects more to follow as the antenna becomes operational.

"We started working on this 10 years ago," said van Leer. "Companies wouldn't come to Fairfax because we're low-income. Only recently have they started upgrading service."

In 2017, Connect Your Community and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance — two nonprofit organizations that advocate for digital equity in low-income neighborhoods —  released a report that AT&T had engaged in digital redlining of high-poverty neighborhoods in Cleveland. According to the report, the company declined to install upgraded broadband lines to a number of Cleveland neighborhoods with high poverty rates, including Hough, Glenville, Central, Fairfax, South Collinwood, St. Clair-Superior, Detroit-Shoreway and Stockyards.

Of Fairfax's 6,000 residents, about 40 percent do not have internet access — among the lowest access rates in the city. In Cleveland overall, about 37 percent of households lack home internet access. That's the second-highest rate in Cuyahoga County after East Cleveland, where 52 percent of households do not have access. Countywide, about 25 percent of households do not have internet subscriptions.

The Cuyahoga County Board of Control approved the placement of the antenna on top of the Juvenile Justice Center on Sept. 3, under a 10-year license agreement with DigitialC. Installation is expected to start within weeks.

The County and DigitalC plan to continue their partnership to improve service in three additional neighborhoods: Glenville, Hough and Clark-Fulton by the end of the year.

"This is going to be a first pilot project proof of concept to make sure that [we] can provide reliable sustainable low cost Internet access through this model," said Catherine Tkachyk of Cuyahoga County's office of innovation and performance.

DigitalC  previously partnered with the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority to improve internet service at public housing developments.

Justin Glanville is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.