According to the U.S. Census’ new American Community Survey, in 2016 a full one-third of Cleveland households either didn’t have a home computer, or had a computer but no Internet connection — even with a mobile device like a smartphone.
Tens of thousands of adults in these Cleveland households lack the basic digital skills to look for a job or health information online, send and receive email, help their children with online homework or stay in touch with family, friends and community via social media. This is a big problem for Clevelanders who are older (seniors as well as workers in their 50s and 60s), poorer, and less educated.
Cleveland is fortunate that we have nonprofit community technology programs in a number of neighborhoods, providing basic computer and Internet training and support to neighbors who need it. Some of these programs also help their trainees get cheap refurbished home computers so they can continue to use what they’ve learned. But despite the importance of their work, most of Cleveland’s community technology programs are shoestring operations, and receive no financial support from the City of Cleveland (other than small ward allocation grants from a couple of enlightened City Council members.)
In the past eighteen months, thanks to agreements with the Federal Communication Commission, both AT&T and Charter Spectrum have begun offering special deep-discount Internet plans to certain eligible low-income customers — Access From AT&T for SNAP households, and Spectrum Internet Assist for low income K-12 households and very poor seniors. Despite their limitations, these plans have the potential to get tens of thousands of Cleveland households on line… if only the city’s community technology programs had the resources to help eligible households navigate the red tape of signing up.
It’s time for the City to step up. Cleveland’s Mayor and City Council should commit at least $1 million a year in new funding to support and expand Cleveland’s Neighborhood Technology Centers, so they can provide basic digital literacy training to thousands more neighbors who need it, and help those who are eligible to take advantage of existing affordable Internet alternatives.