Making connections: Cleveland takes aim at digital divide

The world is standing at the forefront of a new, digital frontier.

People are increasingly turning to the internet to receive medical assistance, perform their jobs, manage their bank accounts, catch up with friends and receive college degrees – all from behind a screen.

But while these advancements hint to a Jetsons-esque future, they’re also creating a growing divergence between the haves and have-nots: those who have access to the internet and those who do not.

Dorothy Baunach, CEO of DigitalC“If you don’t have internet access in the 21st  Century, it would be like living in the 19th or 20th  Century and not having water or electricity,” says Dorothy Baunach, CEO of DigitalC, a nonprofit that strives to bring lasting connectivity to all of Cleveland.

Out of all U.S. cities with more than 100,000 households, Cleveland has the lowest rate of connectivity, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 2018 American Community Survey one-year estimates. In a 2019 American Community Survey, about 30.73% of Cleveland households had no broadband access, and 45.96% had no wired connection.

This recent fight against Cleveland’s digital divide has brought governments, organizations, and foundations together. Squashing it has become a mission for Cuyahoga County and organizations like DigitalC and the Jewish Federation of Cleveland.

“It’s a big project, but there’s a lot of partners that are interested in doing this,” says Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish. “I do think it’s possible to close the digital divide.”

The beginnings
Snaking below Euclid Avenue is Cleveland’s digital lifeblood. From this fiber underground, Cleveland receives its internet connectivity through “pipes” built off of the main line to businesses, neighborhoods and beyond. But these pipes extending internet capabilities were never built to reach all neighborhoods, Baunach says.

“How could we sit between New York and Chicago, right on the spine of the internet, and have the least connected city in the country?” she asks.

Cleveland’s wealthier communities solved this problem with increased availability of fixed wireless technology. Fiber to the home was installed to give people broadband at top speeds.

This left Cleveland’s poorest neighborhoods— unable to afford the high costs of fiber installation—off the digital grid. This area included what Baunach called “the poverty crescent,” tracing East Cleveland from North Collinwood, down through the center of the city and into Fairfax, Glenville, Hough, and Central; pockets on the west side around the MetroHealth towers; some of the inner-ring suburbs; into Garfield Heights, Bedford Heights and Maple Heights; and a pocket around Parma.

“There may be service [in these areas], but it is largely unaffordable—if they have service at all,” Budish says.

Knowledge of the digital divide started in the early 2000s, when Baunach was a board member on DigitalC’s precursor, OneCleveland, which later changed its name to OneCommunity. The organization sought to expand Cleveland’s broadband footprint as internet usage grew.

But it wasn’t until 2017 that the drastic implications of the divide were recognized. When Baunach moved from board positions to leading DigitalC, she looked at data produced by the American Community Survey. She saw how Cleveland had been jumping around among the top-five least connected major cities in the country.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” Baunach says. “It was like we spent all this time on broadband, but it was building a middle mile as a nonprofit to serve other nonprofits…The sad part is, [Cleveland’s digital divide has] been there for a long time. We just didn’t recognize it and weren’t able or willing to do anything about it.”

Early attempts at closing divide
DigitalC started tackling the digital divide with brute force in the late 2010s.

The nonprofit forged partnerships with organizations like the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority to bring high speed, affordable broadband to the city.

In 2018, DigitalC finalized its pilot project, Connect the Unconnected, that provided devices and internet access to over 500 Cleveland households. It worked to extend a fiber-optic network that connected Cleveland’s hospitals, which brought gigabyte-per-second connections to Cleveland’s public housing and broadband access to projects-area tenants.

Armond Budish, county executive, speaks during a Cuyahoga County event meant to gather input on the “surge” in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood in mid-August. On a county level, Budish says efforts at healing Cleveland’s digital divide have also existed for several years. In 2019, the county partnered with DigitalC to provide Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood with low cost, in-home internet access.

Cuyahoga County assisted with the installation of an antenna on the county’s juvenile justice center. It also donated 300 hot spots to the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) for students who didn’t have internet access.

Additionally, in September Budish announced plans to partner with DigitalC to connect at least 70% of the Central neighborhood with internet as part of his Central Neighborhood Surge program.

“Since we are working very hard to move Cuyahoga County ahead—we’re limited if our residents don’t have connectivity,” Budish says. “That’s a high priority for us.”

Connecting unconnected
Once the issue’s immense impact was recognized, Baunach says the hard part started.

“How do you address [the digital divide] so that people have access to internet in order to lead themselves to better health, better education, and better economic opportunity?” she asks, explaining that digging up Cleveland’s infrastructure in every neighborhood to install fiber to the home would be too expensive.

Thus, DigitalC relies on a number of other methods to bring connectivity.

One way is by connecting the fiber in the ground to a radio on top of a tall building, using a special radio that sends a narrow beam to another building. This creates rings of internet access, which Baunach calls “the fiber ring in the sky.”

From the same rooftop with another bank of radios connected to the main fiber, DigitalC sends signals out into the neighborhoods within a direct line of sight to a device about the size of an iPhone, called Customer Premises Equipment, on the roof.

“As long as you have line of sight to the next building, it’s as good as the fiber in the ground,” Baunach explains. “But if a tree leaf gets in the way, or if another building is in the way, it’s a problem.”

Another layer of technology to provide internet access is via old CB radio spectra that has recently been released for general use. This method sends wavelengths, similar to ripples caused by dropping a rock into a body of water. The wavelengths aren’t as impacted by trees or buildings, but the farther away from the radio, the weaker the signal.

This layer is about to be added to Hough and parts of St. Clair Superior on the east side of 55th Street.

A third and newer technology to connect households to the internet is with millimeter wave technology—what Baunach calls “the holy grail of fixed wireless technology.” It works by building a wireless mesh under a tree canopy, and then waves are able to bounce from a tall building to a lower building, phone pole, tower, or building.

It’s the most expensive of the technologies DigitalC uses, but it can deliver 21st Century internet speeds—faster than the other two technologies.

A map of Cuyahoga County shows areas around Cleveland where households do not receive wireless broadband. Information is from the 2019 American Community Survey, U.S. Census.

The impacted population
Developing its plan of attack, DigitalC realized the population affected has to be broken down into three groups with unique needs. Health care and education needs overlap the three segments, but each require a different approach in terms of solutions.

The first group consists of the senior population—those ages 60 and older. Baunach says a majority of those in the senior group have never been connected to the internet, and there’s still a large reliance on landlines.

Making sure seniors not only receive internet access but learn how to use it has been DigitalC’s approach. Technology literacy education is provided in Spanish and English, and DigitalC uses community partners trusted by the seniors to guide education efforts.

“Seniors are impacted dramatically—it’s life changing to give a senior computer,” Baunach says.

The second group is the student population. DigitalC has partnered with the CMSD, Breakthrough Schools and the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.

Temporary aid can be given by supplying students with Chromebooks and hotspots, but Baunach says the goal is instead “equitable internet access.”

The final group DigitalC calls “strivers,” or the population of people 18 to 55 years old. A majority of those in this group who DigitalC works with are unemployed or underemployed.

“They’ve never really had the opportunity to be employed in a way where you might be able to work remotely,” Baunach says. “And many of them aren’t even quite sure what their skill sets lend to in terms of a 21st Century job.”

Many strivers are also caregivers for a child or a senior, or part of a multigenerational family or single-parent family under one roof. For this group, once DigitalC gets a neighborhood connected, it offers broadband internet services for $20 a month.

DigitalC CEO Dorothy Baunach (center with glasses) smiles with members of the DigitalC staff. Baunach attributed the grant’s possibility to her staff.COVID-19 uncovers divide
In December 2019, DigitalC had devised a plan to combat Cleveland’s dead-last ranking as the least connected city in the country.

DigitalC determined it could be solved for about $50 million, but the organization questioned if enough people would invest in the cause, Baunach says.

A handful of months passed, and then the world was thrown into the COVID-19 pandemic, which crafted a newfound reliance on the internet as it became the only safe way people could “leave” their homes.

“What really exposed this digital divide for Cleveland was the pandemic,” Baunach says.

Schools turned virtual, as did many businesses and events. But for those living within Cleveland’s technology blackout zones, accessing Zoom or online portals wasn’t an option.

“All of a sudden, you get a pandemic that just lays it bare for the whole community,” Baunach says. “We wake up one day and everybody discovers that because we have kids who can’t go to school, it’s not tenable that we have this situation.”

The virus shed further light on who is impacted by the digital divide, Budish says.
“We also saw through the pandemic that it’s really an equity issue,” he says. “It’s often underserved areas or in minority areas, and that creates a whole lot of other problems that compounds the difficulties that minorities have.”

Help from Federation, Mandel, Myers, others
As the pandemic threw off the sheet hiding the severity of the digital divide, the county, DigitalC and numerous local organizations came together to provide solutions.

The Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation and the David and Inez Myers Foundation announced in July that they made a combined $20 million investment in DigitalC.   The grant will allow DigitalC to expand access to and adoption of its broadband connectivity infrastructure across Greater Cleveland, according to a news release.

“This accelerated citywide deployment model that we have, because of the funding from Mandel and Myers, we’ll be able to pretty much blanket all 34 neighborhoods with a layer of this [CB radio spectra] technology pretty quickly,” says Baunach.

DigitalC has invested more than $10 million to connect Greater Cleveland’s unserved and under-served since 2016. It’s goal is to connect 40,000 households to its internet service.

The $20 million grant will allow for DigitalC to expand its network from six to 34 neighborhoods and increase its subscriber base of more than 1,000 households.

Cuyahoga County and DigitalC entered into a contract where DigitalC will provide affordable, in-home, high speed broadband services to residents in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood. This contract will provide for the build-out of wireless internet service infrastructure that will cover about 70% of Central and provide equipment for roughly 500 households.

The county contributed $330,000 to this effort, with additional investments from DigitalC and a grant application for federal funding completed by the Cleveland Public Library, bringing the total to over $600,000. Installation work is estimated to begin in mid-November.

Cuyahoga County also sent out a request for proposals to the general community a few months ago, where service providers were asked to submit possible solutions and ways to provide affordable and accessible internet connectivity. Budish says the county will move forward with a range of initiatives once those responses are received and evaluated.

The county also contributed to the Greater Cleveland Digital Equity Fund organized by the Cleveland Foundation. Through this fund, 5,000 internet hotspots, two years of unlimited data and 10,000 laptops were donated to families.

The state of Ohio has also contributed to the issue, and Cuyahoga County has worked with companies like EDEN, Inc., GE Lighting, Microsoft, University Hospitals, and PCs for People.

The county also donated $150,000 toward a partnership to bring cutting-edge internet access to 1,000 East Cleveland residents, Budish says.

The Jewish Federation of Cleveland entered the fight against the digital divide with a computer drive in conjunction with PCs for People. The drive ran from July 11 to Aug. 4, where community members donated old electronic equipment that would be given to communities in need nationwide.

Scott Garson, who headed the initiative for the Federation, said the drive raised over 3,300 pounds of electronics.

“This was really a small drop in the bucket of how to help those less fortunate who don’t have access to equipment,” Garson told the CJN. “Through a tangible, small effort, not only do you collect the equipment, but you raise the issue and the awareness that it’s an important issue for our community.”

Call to the fight
Baunach and Budish acknowledged the fight against the digital divide is no easy feat. They attributed the many partnerships and organizations taking part as key to closing it.

“We don’t do all this by ourselves,” Baunach said. “This is a community-based partnership model that we’ve developed, it’s kind of our secret sauce. I think that we can, as [CMSD CEO Eric Gordon] said, take Cleveland from worst to first. I really believe that’s attainable, hopefully, in my lifetime.”

Garson encouraged all of Cleveland to contribute in some way to helping overcome the divide. He suggested residents donate money and spare electronics, take part in local initiatives and learn more about the divide happening in their backyard.

“Many of us are insulated from seeing its adverse effects,” Garson said. “...Part of the challenge that we have [among] those engaged in the digital divide issue is getting people to understand how it does impact those in our urban and rural communities.”

Originally Published by the Cleveland Jewish News, a member of the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative (NEO SoJo). Republished with permission.

McKenna Corson is a staff reporter with the Cleveland Jewish News.