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Inside Cleveland’s Plan to Expand Broadband Access

Local nonprofit DigitalC has presented its $40 million plan, funded both publicly and privately, to improve Internet access in a city that has lagged behind its peers in this area.

Cleveland has more than most cities.
(TNS) — Cleveland’s plan to expand affordable broadband access is coming into focus.

On Monday, local nonprofit DigitalC presented its $40 million plan, funded both publicly and privately, to improve internet access in a city that has lagged behind its peers.

The plan to expand internet access in the city will be rolled out in three phases, each taking six months, said DigitalC Chief Operating Officer Jose Valdez said during a special presentation to Cleveland City Council.

Here is who is first in line:

  • Phase 1: East Side (wards 5, 6, 7 and 9)
  • Phase 2: East and West Sides, no downtown (wards 4, 8, 10, 11, 14 and 16)
  • Phase 3 entire city (wards 1, 2, 3, 12, 13, 15 and 17)

Once DigitalC has built enough infrastructure to cover the city, it will add more equipment to improve “density” and improve the quality and stability of the network. If approved, the project will continue through 2026.

DigitalC will employ a “fixed wireless network” that places a “remote node” atop a 70-foot structure such as a tall building and hooks into an existing fiber optic network. The remote node sends a signal to nearby customers, who then can access the internet.

Older technology would fail if the line of sight between the remote node and the customer was broken, say, by a tree or tall building, but DigitalC’s technology compensates for that by reflecting and refracting signals off existing structures, CEO Joshua Edmonds said during the presentation.

Edmonds described the planned network as an “enterprise-grade competitive network” and said his sister, who lives in the Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood, gets her internet from DigitalC.

“I wouldn’t want my family to be on something I don’t believe in,” Edmonds said.

DigitalC, which previously went by OneCleveland, and then OneCommunity, already has a footprint in Cleveland. Documents provided by DigitalC show they have a presence in Ohio City, Detroit-Shoreway, Clark-Fulton, Tremont, Brooklyn Centre, Goodrich-Kirkland Park, Central, Glenville, Fairfax, Buckeye-Shaker, Buckeye-Woodhill, Central, St. Clair-Superior. It’s also in Hough, where the nonprofit is headquartered. Only Hough is completely covered and other areas such as downtown, Broadway-Slavic Village, Kinsman and Union-Miles have almost no DigitalC coverage.

Behind schedule

Although DigitalC has a presence in several neighborhoods, the company only has about 2,000 customers, despite being available to serve 23,000 homes, Edmonds said.

Councilman Kevin Conwell questioned how DigitalC could promise to provide affordable broadband to an entire city when it has never done so in another city.

Edmonds responded saying the nonprofit’s confidence stems from its technology, which has been used successfully elsewhere.

However, DigitalC has over-promised and under-delivered in the past. In 2015, the nonprofit had promised to have 40,000 connected by 2024, reported previously. Utilities Committee Chair Brian Kazy cited the nonprofit’s history during Monday’s presentation to council.

“Because of the history of what you said you were going to do and fallen short… why are we to believe that with your aggressive timeline you’re presenting to the city you’re not going to fall short?” Kazy asked.

A long road

Half of DigitalC’s $40 million investment will come from Cleveland’s $512 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding. Another $17 million will come from the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Foundation and the David and Inez Myers Foundation, and other funds will come from a mix of the federal government and DigitalC, according to documents provided by DigitalC.

The $20 million from Cleveland’s ARPA fund was approved when City Council was under the leadership of Kevin Kelley and City Hall was led by then-Mayor Frank Jackson. After legislation was approved, Cleveland sought formal proposals for companies and nonprofits who sought the contract.

Cleveland fell behind schedule on approving the broadband request. The June 2022 request for proposals initially projected finalizing a vendor by the end of September 2022.

Roughly 11 months after publishing that formal request, the city announced last week it had chosen DigitalC for its broadband project.

The nonprofit’s guaranteed internet speed of 100 megabits per second will only be a fraction of what the city sought in its formal request, 350 mbps. However, Edmonds said the nonprofit plans to offer packages to residents that are faster than 100 mbps, with plans to offer as much as 1 gigabit per second.

“There are going to be residents who want more, and we’re going to be able to deliver that,” Edmonds said.

DigitalC did, however, promise to provide internet access for $18 per month, which is under the $23 per month threshold set by the proposal.

“We did an analysis of what people could afford, and that’s how we came to that number,” Edmonds said of the $18 per month price.

If approved, DigitalC would be required to offer service at $18 per month for the first five years, then for the next five years after that could only increase prices by the rate of inflation, according to Austin Davis, a senior policy advisor for Mayor Justin Bibb.

Friday, a private company, SiFi, announced recently it would spend over $400 million in private dollars to lay throughout the city fiber optic cables, which tend to be faster than wireless internet, reported previously. However, SiFi’s plan is more intensive and would take roughly seven years to design and finish construction, reported previously.

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