Free City wifi for all Cleveland neighborhoods: What you need to know

Since 2011, the City of Cleveland has been providing free Internet service to the residents of a single City Council ward — Council President Kevin Kelley’s Ward 13, located in the Old Brooklyn neighborhood.

Ward 13 residents can access their free Internet via a system of two hundred and twenty wifi access points mounted on City light fixtures, distributed over a 4.5 square mile area.  The network, called “Old Brooklyn Connected”, has been built, operated and maintained entirely with City funds.

Councilman Kelley took the initiative to create Old Brooklyn Connected long before he was Council President. He called it “the Greatest Project in America” and earmarked hundreds of thousands of dollars from his ward allocation funds to help fund it — and recently, to upgrade it.  (The funding wasn’t all from Councilman Kelley’s ward money; the Jackson administration kicked in hundreds of thousands more from other sources.)

So for the past seven years, Councilman Kelley’s constituents have enjoyed free, reasonably fast Internet access courtesy of the City — on their streets and front porches, and in many cases, inside their homes as well.

Among other things, this means that smartphone owners in  Ward 13 can use the City’s wifi to avoid mobile data charges — potentially saving hundreds of dollars a year on their Verizon, AT&T or T-Mobile bills.

The Jackson Administration’s “2018 Budget Book” says this about Old Brooklyn Connected (page 27): “The City of Cleveland continues to successfully operate and maintain a 4.5 square mile Wi-Fi network in its 13th ward as a pilot project to help close the Digital Divide…[W]ireless initiatives like these also provides a great opportunity to invest in our residents by providing internet access that might not otherwise be available to them, help close the Digital Divide, and make the City of Cleveland a ‘Digital city of choice’.”

The dictionary says a “pilot project” is an “activity planned as a test or trial”. The City’s Ward 13 wifi “test or trial” has been underway for more than seven years. Isn’t that long enough?

Old Brooklyn isn’t the only place the City offers free wifi access.  There’s City wifi for business travelers at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, for downtown office workers and tourists in Public Square, and of course for elected officials, City staff and visitors at City Hall.  It’s all “free”, i.e. all paid for with public dollars as a public service.

Well… if City-funded wifi Internet access is a worthwhile public service for the City to provide at the airport, in Public Square, at City Hall and throughout 4.5 square miles of Old Brooklyn, then why not for the rest of Cleveland’s neighborhoods and business districts?  And especially, why not for those neighborhoods where the Digital Divide is a much more serious problem than it is in Old Brooklyn?

It’s time for the City to take the next step. The Mayor and City Council should expand the City’s wifi network to every residential block and every neighborhood business district in Cleveland.

About costs and benefits

Of course citywide wifi would come with a significant price tag.  Based on the Ward 13 experience, it could cost as much as $20 million to build a citywide network, and $1-$2 million a year to operate it. Depending on the system design and financing strategy, the annual cost to City taxpayers could be as much as $4 or $5 million. Is it worth it?

Yes, it’s absolutely worth it.  Just consider what we’d be buying:

  • Basic Internet access would become readily available to tens of thousands of disadvantaged Cleveland households that don’t have it now — meaning they could (with some help, see Question 1) start going online to look for jobs, pursue education from K-12 to college, communicate with employers and healthcare providers, stay in touch with family, and so on. Cleveland would take a huge step toward eliminating our horrendous digital divide.
  • Every Cleveland resident, worker, business person and visitor with a smartphone would have the opportunity to use unlimited data at no cost. Public wifi would literally put money back in every Cleveland taxpayer’s pocket, while providing a real “financial amenity” for businesses and tourism… not just downtown but in every part of the city. What other new City initiative can offer a personal financial benefit to every taxpayer?
  • Among those saving on mobile data costs would be the City’s own personnel.  If City employees had wifi access throughout the city, City Hall could reduce or eliminate the cost of their mobile data access… returning the savings to the City treasury. The same would be true of other public, educational and civic institutions.
  • Ubiquitous public wifi would support an explosion of mobile apps for civic and community purposes, because any Clevelander– rich or poor — could use them.

To put the cost in perspective:The City’s total income tax revenue is about $400 million — $80 million more than before the 2016 tax increase. If you earn $50,000, the City income tax costs you $1,250 a year. Using $5 million of our tax money to provide public wifi access in your neighborhood would take about $16 of your annual tax payment.  In return, your family would get access to free Internet anywhere in Cleveland, and the chance to reduce your wireless data bill by $10-$20 a month, maybe more.

Doesn’t that sound like a good use of your tax money?

Mayor Jackson and City Council have demonstrated clearly (in the cases of the Quicken Loans Arena deal and the renovation of Public Square, for example) that they can and will find tax funds to support new initiatives they consider important. So they should be able to find room in the City Budget for an investment that will accomplish an important community purpose and directly benefit the large majority of their constituents.

Back to the Cleveland Digital Justice Campaign’s 4-point program