It took a global pandemic to focus attention on an astounding fact: about 37% of households in Cleveland, and 25% in Cuyahoga County, have no access to the internet. Those numbers would prompt some jaw-dropping even in normal times.
But COVID-19 further illustrated the real-life consequences of that level of disconnection — thousands of Cleveland Metropolitan School District kids, sent home this spring by the virus, had no way to access their teachers’ digital lessons. Around 40% of families in the district, which serves about 37,000 kids, do not have access to reliable, high-speed internet. “That number is probably illustrative of a bigger problem in our city,” says CMSD CEO Eric Gordon.
To cope during the spring semester, the district put schoolwork packets in the mail, set up homework help phone lines, and passed out 17,000 computers and 4,700 Wi-Fi hotspots. But as a new school year dawns, Gordon says closing Cleveland’s digital divide is no longer optional. “We’ve got to make internet a utility like we did with electricity 100 years ago,” he says. “In Ohio, you can’t even apply for unemployment without the internet.”
DigitalC, a local nonprofit, has been attempting to connect Clevelanders to the internet since 2017. It built a network that serves 550 Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority residents for free and launched EmpowerCLE, which uses a network of line-of-sight radio transmitters mounted on tall buildings to give another 200 customers in Glenville, Hough, Fairfax and Clark-Fulton internet access for about $18 per month.
Earlier this year, DigitalC began implementing a five-year plan to connect other neighborhoods with EmpowerCLE. “COVID changed everything,” says DigitalC CEO Dorothy Baunach.
Almost overnight, CMSD became a major customer for EmpowerCLE, and the five-year plan pivoted to a two-year plan. Starting this school year, some CMSD students will be transitioning from Wi-Fi hotspots to EmpowerCLE subscriptions. The district plans to start with 1,000 households by Labor Day, add 8,400 by next June, and connect all of the district’s 16,000 families to the network by the 2022-23 school year.
That will mean deploying the EmpowerCLE network into the gaps left behind by for-profit telecom giants, especially on the city’s East and Near West sides. Most residents of Cleveland have only two choices for internet service — AT&T or Spectrum — and neither are affordable for poorer Clevelanders, says Bill Callahan, research and policy coordinator for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
In a small, informal survey Callahan conducted of Glenville residents who had home internet in the past, 66% said they canceled their service because it was too expensive. Spectrum’s service, for instance, costs about $70 per month. “It’s not just, ‘Do you have connectivity?’ ” says Callahan. “It’s, ‘Do you have connectivity that, if you’re really poor, you can afford?’ ”
Once the EmpowerCLE network is up and running, internet access for CMSD families will be paid for by the district. Other families will be able to get access for about $18 per month. In two years, DigitalC wants to reach about 27,000 of Cleveland’s most under-served families.
Building out the network will cost at least $36 million, and CMSD and DigitalC are launching a fundraising campaign. But Baunach says that once the network is built, it will be financially sustainable. DigitalC is also working with neighborhood organizations, governments and banks to further subsidize the $18 cost for people in need.
Cleveland’s digital divide has been expanding, but in a few years, it might just be closed.
“We’re very excited. We know we’ve got a challenge in front of us,” says Baunach. “Everybody wants to see this done. We feel like we’re under a microscope right now to see if we can pull this off. But we’re optimistic, we’re excited. Failure is not an option.”