Cleveland launched an effort Monday to tackle the digital divide in the city – the gap in access to the Internet that has left as much as two-thirds of Cleveland schoolchildren unable to go online in their homes.
(TNS) — Cleveland City Council launched an effort Monday to tackle the so-called “digital divide” in Cleveland – the gap in access to the Internet that has left as much as two-thirds of the Cleveland school children unable to go online in their homes.
Council President Kevin Kelley opened the first of what he expects will be many hearings hearing by noting that the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis laid bare the impact of the divide as children were forced to attend school remotely and people tried to do their jobs online.
“Now is the time to strike because there’s so much attention on it,” Kelley said. “The goal is to come up with a plan that city council can be a partner in … and support to get to the finish line, which is to provide affordable accessible service to all Clevelanders.”
As Ohioan’s took to their homes to try to slow spread of the coronavirus, the impact of no Internet access or poor service quickly became apparent.
Cleveland schools has estimated as many as two-thirds of its students do not have sufficient access – something the city, the school district and organizations like the Cleveland Foundation have scrambled to address.
Employees confined to working at home need access capable of handling Zoom meetings, which requires greater download speeds than just scanning pages.
Digital C, a nonprofit trying to expand Internet access, has regularly ranked Cleveland among the worst cities for connectivity in the country.
Among those who joined City Council for the meeting Monday were people involved with the issue: Dorothy Baunach, Digital C’s CEO; Leon Wilson, the Cleveland Foundation’s director of digital innovation; two representatives from Novarum, the company that engineered a Wi-Fi system a decade ago for Old Brooklyn residents; and Curtis Timmons, the Cleveland schools’ chief information officer who is tackling remote learning in the school district.
All agreed that the causes of the divide, and the solutions, revolve around money.
An Internet connection from a major carrier such as AT&T or Spectrum often is out of reach, topping $50 a month, Wilson said.
“There’s a direct correlation with poverty,” Wilson said. “We use this term [digital divide] so much. What we really should be saying is a lack of social inclusion.”
Fiber optic connections directly to households are the strongest, but also the most expensive systems to build. Wi-Fi systems, boosted by signals from tall buildings or transmitters below the tree canopy or perhaps atop Cleveland Public Power light poles, might be a way to lower the monthly bill.
That has been Digital C’s focus through partnerships with Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority and its Empower CLE projects in several Cleveland neighborhoods.
The Cleveland Foundation has worked similarly with Cleveland schools and through a group called the Digital Equity Coalition.
The system in Old Brooklyn, Kelley’s Ward 13, cost more than $1 million to put together, paid for with a mix of federal funding, city revenues and contributions from private nonprofit sources.
This isn’t the first big social issue City Council has taken on. In recent years, working with Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration, it has pushed initiatives to tackle poisoning from lead paint in houses, high infant mortality rates, the cost to seniors of maintaining their homes on fixed incomes and legal counsel for Impoverished families facing eviction.
But this initiative comes at a time when there is uncertainty about Cleveland’s financial footing. Income tax revenues have declined. And if people don’t return to working downtown, the city could lose tens of millions of dollars of income taxes it collects from suburban commuters.
But the issue is too important to not take on, Kelley said, particularly as Cleveland schools prepare to start the year with at least nine weeks of remote learning.
“If we have nine weeks of remote learning for kids and they don’t have good access, that’s a problem,” Kelley said in an interview with cleveland.com after the hearing.
“I have to acknowledge it’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be free,” Kelley said. “There’s a cost of doing nothing, as well.”
©2020 The Plain Dealer, Cleveland. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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