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Two New Internet Services Promise to Close Cleveland’s Access Gap

One option would provide an affordable monthly broadband plan through a local nonprofit, while the second option would come through a proposed agreement with SiFi Networks to build fiber-optic lines across the city.

(TNS) — The city of Cleveland is poised to gain two citywide Internet services under plans unveiled Friday by Mayor Justin Bibb.

One option would provide an affordable $18-a-month broadband plan through local nonprofit DigitalC, which uses fixed wireless technology to offer high-speed connectivity. The second option would come through a proposed agreement with SiFi Networks, which would build fiber optic lines across the city.

“It was important that we took a thorough, thoughtful approach to not only create the right floor for how we think about closing the digital divide in Cleveland, but also how we raise the bar to ensure the city is prepared and ready for the 21st century economy,” Bibb told He said Internet access is a fundamental right.

Both Bibb and Council President Blaine Griffin said the city’s plans would go a long way toward closing the digital divide for Cleveland, where some 35% of residents currently lack at-home broadband services, according to the latest U.S. Census data.

DigitalC access is expected to be available to all of about 170,000 Cleveland households, regardless of income level, and the fiber network is expected to be available to all residents and businesses, according to the city.

Residents can expect access to the DigitalC connectivity rather quickly, within about 18 months of the city finalizing the proposed deal.

It will take longer to install fiber lines. Design and other preparation work for SiFi’s infrastructure will take two years, and construction is expected to take another five.

The SiFi Networks proposal involves no public money, Bibb said. The company, which already has agreements with 40-plus cities across 11 states, is expected to privately invest over $400 million to build out its fiber network in Cleveland. Once built, SiFi would operate the lines and sell wholesale access to those lines to Internet service providers with whom residents would do business.

Bibb, citing the Federal Communications Commission’s latest data, said SiFi’s network would be a first for Ohio and big cities in the region.

“No other city in Ohio, and no other major metropolitan area in the Great Lakes, can boast a universal, citywide fiber optic network,” Bibb said in a news release.

Other cities that have already partnered with SiFi include: Fullerton, California; Mesa, Arizona; Saratoga Springs, New York; and Salem, Massachusetts.

Bibb emphasized that Cleveland’s approach to citywide Internet access is a divergence from what the private market has long offered.

“This is just signaling to the market that we want to create more competition around ensuring that no community in our city is left behind. Because if you don’t create that competition, you get what we saw before the pandemic, where telecom companies pick and choose where they want to invest, where they want to build, and that’s where we have issues like digital redlining,” Bibb said.

Meanwhile, the DigitalC agreement would tap all $20 million in American Rescue Plan money that City Council and former Mayor Frank Jackson set aside for broadband services in late 2021. But that city money is not enough to deliver access to all of Cleveland. To get the project over the finish line, DigitalC will tap its own financial reserves, and The Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Foundation and the David and Inez Myers Foundation are matching the city’s money with a $20 million investment of their own, officials said.

“Two-thirds of our city lacks access to quality broadband Internet. We hope this partnership leads to robust conversations about closing the digital divide for Clevelanders of all ages,” City Council President Blaine Griffin said in the release.

The DigitalC agreement would expand its low-cost service that’s already established in some parts of the city. Residents can expect speeds of 100/100Mbps, which Bibb described as fast enough for multiple devices at once, accommodating everything from homework assignments and job applications, to Zoom meetings and video games.

DigitalC, formerly known as OneCommunity, has been operating in Cleveland for some time, but some have raised questions about its efficacy and what appear to be its relatively small-scale deployments of Internet access. Bibb says it’s the right organization for the job. In part, that’s because he has confidence in its board and new CEO, Joshua Edmonds, who once served as the Cleveland Foundation’s digital innovation fellow before serving as Detroit’s first director of digital inclusion.

On top of providing actual Internet services, DigitalC would also expand its digital literacy training and help connect residents to related services, such as the federal government’s Affordable Connectivity program. They’ll also go door-to-door to let residents know about the new services, according to the release.

Several other community partners and organizations would supplement DigitalC’s outreach with additional referrals and training seminars, the release said.

Both plans will require approval from City Council, where at least one of the proposals is expected to be introduced on Monday.

Bibb said the city’s two-pronged strategy to citywide access – a quicker, affordable option and the longer-term deployment of fiber – is meant to ensure that all Clevelanders can finally access at-home Internet connectivity.

“I think this investment is a signal that our administration is committed to investing in every neighborhood of our city, to tell residents from Mount Pleasant to West Park that your neighborhood matters, that your neighborhood deserves the latest and greatest technology,” Bibb said.

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