Cleveland plan: $20 million for digital inclusion and broadband competition

Cleveland City leaders have unveiled their long-awaited broadband initiative, concluding a process that began with a request for proposals last June. The City plan seeks both a big near-term reduction in Cleveland’s persistent digital divide, and a longer-term expansion of  broadband choices for all Clevelanders. The proposed City investment of $20 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds will leverage many more dollars of private investment and engage a host of community collaborators.

The plan calls for awarding the $20 million to a consortium of nonprofit, institutional and private-sector partners led by local nonprofit wireless Internet provider DigitalC.  Most of the money would be used to expand DigitalC’s $18/mo wireless broadband service (“empowerCLE+”) throughout the city. But a significant portion would be dedicated to digital skills training, affordable computers, and individualized “digital navigator”  support for less-connected Cleveland residents.

In addition, the City would support (but not fund) the deployment of a fiber optic “open access network” by a company called SiFi Networks, which could eventually offer alternative Internet service providers a way to reach any home or business in Cleveland.

This strategy addresses two related but distinct community needs: Digital inclusion and broadband competition.

Community need #1: Digital inclusion

As became painfully clear in 2020,  tens of thousands of Clevelanders – primarily poorer and older residents – lack the tools needed to use the Internet effectively, including affordable home Internet access, affordable computers, and basic user skills. In 2021, according to the U.S. Census’ most recent American Community Survey, a third of all Cleveland households still lacked wired, high-speed broadband connections. One Cleveland household in five still had no Internet subscription of any kind, even a cellphone data plan. 33% of Cleveland households still owned not a single laptop, desktop or tablet computer.

Effective community approaches to overcoming barriers to mainstream computer and network access have existed in Cleveland for decades. The basic elements of digital inclusion – easy access to free skills training and support, low-cost Internet service, and low-cost computers, provided by familiar community organizations and institutions – have been recognized and practiced by Cleveland community organizations and libraries since the 1990s.

More recently, and especially since the 2020 COVID lockdowns, the digital inclusion cause has been taken up by the Cleveland Foundation, Cuyahoga County, our school district and housing authority, and many other institutions and groups that now form the Greater Cleveland Digital Equity Coalition.

Cleveland City Hall has seldom played a major role in these efforts compared to municipal leaders in some other communities. But the arrival of ARPA funding (for which promoting digital inclusion is a Federally encouraged use) brought the City of Cleveland a unique opportunity to help fund and lead a community-wide strategy to connect all of its citizens.

Initial media overage of the City plan has emphasized the expansion of DigitalC’s low-cost wireless network – and rightly so, because most of the $20 million (along with a comparable amount of private matching investment) would be earmarked for that purpose. Citywide deployment of low cost, high speed home Internet is a linchpin of the City’s strategy. Universal access to a reliably cheap, fast broadband option is essential to the task of connecting low income and senior Clevelanders, who live in every neighborhood.  It would offer an opportunity for budget relief for financially stressed households in general, and help set a competitive standard for other providers.

But the DigitalC-led consortium brings a lot more to the table. The partners represent Cleveland’s entire digital inclusion ecosystem – community training programs, neighborhood development corporations, the Cleveland Public Library, housing and healthcare providers, and more. Their plan includes direct outreach to tens of thousands of homes; dramatic increases in neighborhood digital skills training, individualized digital navigator assistance, and affordable computer ownership for residents; and specific initiatives to support the effective use of broadband to empower residents in healthcare, education and employment.

This is an “all hands on deck” strategy, aimed at engaging, connecting, training and supporting tens of thousands of households in one big push.  The City’s investment is intended to catalyze a lot of other assets, both human and financial, to accomplish this goal.

That’s the digital inclusion aspect of the City’s initiative. But there’s a second aspect that’s equally ambitious and important, addressing…

Community need #2: Broadband competition

Two unregulated, out-of-state megacorporations now exercise near-total control over the broadband Internet options of Cleveland consumers.

Charter Spectrum, the city’s dominant provider, serves almost the entire city with fast downstream speeds, but at a minimum cost of at least $80 a month after the first twelve months of service ($85 if the customer’s modem Wi-Fi is turned on).

AT&T offers fiber optic service at a comparable downstream speed (and much faster upstream) for as little as $60 a month. But AT&T Fiber is only available to about 44,000 “residential service locations” in Cleveland, according to data AT&T submitted to the FCC last June. A similar number of AT&T-served residential locations in the city (most but not all in East Side neighborhoods — see map below) are still stuck with obsolete ADSL connections, whose maximum download speeds are too slow to meet the FCC’s standard for “broadband”, but cost unlucky customers the same $60 a month. (Click map to see full-sized version.)

Neither of Cleveland’s duopoly broadband providers offers a moderately fast but lower-cost service tier, except to customers who are enrolled in the Federal Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). Unfortunately, the ACP is largely limited to households with incomes below 200% of the poverty line, many of whom choose to use it for enhanced mobile phone data rather than home broadband service.  And the ACP may well end when its initial funding runs out next year.

In the unregulated world of Internet providers, the only antidote to high prices and poor service is competition. But most Cleveland households have only one option for 2023-quality home Internet access. A lucky minority of households have just two options.

The City’s broadband plan aims to increase those options for all residents.

During the next eighteen months, ARPA funds would help pay for the expansion of DigitalC’s fixed wireless broadband network to every neighborhood, so any Cleveland household would have access to it.  DigitalC charges just $18 a month for 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up — not cable modem or fiber optic speeds, but a big improvement over most AT&T non-fiber optic connections. Many Clevelanders, not all of whom are poor, will consider that an attractive choice.

Will Spectrum or AT&T respond by creating their own low cost alternatives to compete with DigitalC?  So much the better.  After all, that’s the point of creating competition… more broadband choices for all Cleveland consumers.

But whether that happens or not, DigitalC’s citywide expansion would offer all those consumers, from West Park and Old Brooklyn to Collinwood and Lee-Seville, at least one very economical new option.

The final, long-term piece of the City plan takes takes this competitive model a big step further. A private company, SiFi Networks, wants to build its own underground fiber optic network over the next seven years to reach every address in Cleveland.

SiFi doesn’t want to be a retail Internet provider itself. It wants to lease space on its network to other companies (and perhaps nonprofits) that want to do that.

This “open access network” model of enabling more broadband competitors is gaining interest and investment across the country. SiFi itself now has construction underway in eight cities, with about thirty others in earlier stages of development. If their model works, in a few years Cleveland households could be choosing among three or four fiber-speed Internet providers instead of just two.

SiFi is not asking for City funding, and it doesn’t need access to existing poles. It has proposed, and the City plan calls for, a cooperative framework to facilitate permitting for its underground fiber deployment in the City’s rights of way.

Current status

The City’s proposed ARPA funding for the DigitalC-led consortium, and a “Right-of-Way Agreement” between the City and SiFi Networks, were both submitted as ordinances for City Council consideration on May 8.  They’re now awaiting committee review and final passage.

Author’s note (from Bill Callahan): Readers should be aware that I worked with the team that developed DigitalC’s proposal to the City, as part of an ongoing consulting relationship.