Organizations work to address the digital divide
(Plain Press, June 2020) The arrival of the coronavirus COVID-19 in Cuyahoga County brought to the forefront the necessity to address the digital divide. A number of community leaders and advocates for social change have come forward, urging action to address this serious issue. Schools and health care providers have scrambled to get students and patients connected to the internet to facilitate access to programs and services during the pandemic. Advocates have called for action on the local, state and federal level to address the need to connect low income households to the internet, and to provide them with computers and training necessary to use the internet for services such as health care, education, working from home or applying for jobs or unemployment.
Connect Your Community
One local nonprofit organization, Connect Your Community, has been working to help local residents connect to the internet and learn how to use it since 2010. In a recent online newsletter, Connect Your Community called for “Free City wifi for all Cleveland neighborhoods.”
In the newsletter, Connect Your Community noted that the City of Cleveland has been providing free wifi for City Council President Kevin Kelly’s Ward 13, the Old Brooklyn Neighborhood, since 2011. The newsletter says, “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.”
Connect Your Community says in its newsletter that Councilman Kelly, long before he was City Council President, funded the project with hundreds of thousands of dollars from his ward allocation along with hundreds of thousands more contributed by the Jackson administration from other sources.
Connect Your Community says that the City of Cleveland also provides free internet access at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, Public Square and City Hall. “The Mayor and City Council should expand the City’s wifi network to every residential block and every neighborhood business district in Cleveland,” says the Connect Your Community newsletter.
Connect Your Community estimates it would cost the City of Cleveland “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 to 5 million.”
Connect Your Community then makes a case for why the city should make that investment:
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, businessperson 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.
Another advocate for bridging the digital divide is Dorothy Baunach, Chief Executive Officer of the nonprofit organization, Digital C. Baunach wrote a May 20th Plain Dealer Commentary from the Community titled “Crisis shows broadband internet connectivity is our city’s lifeline.” In the commentary, Baunach says, “While we shelter in Cleveland to slow the spread of COVID-19, we are seeing in real time how a lack of access to broadband affects our health and well-being. Digital connection enables us to go to work and school, to connect with friends and family, shop for groceries, or even apply for unemployment benefits.”
In her commentary Baunach notes “in 2018 Cleveland was ranked the fourth-worst internet-connected city in the United States, according to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.” She goes on to spell out the severity of the problem in some Cleveland neighborhoods. “Too many Cleveland neighborhoods suffer with more than half of households operating entirely without broadband connection, a digital gap that COVID-19 has brought into sharp relief. This is a public infrastructure issue. And it is a public health issue as important as water for frequent hand-washing.”
Baunach says Digital C offers a low-cost solution and has partnered with neighborhood organizations, health care providers, educational institutions and banks to help bring affordable broadband to Cleveland residents. She said subscribers to EmpowerCLE can receive high speed broadband service for less than $20 a month. This cost is significantly lower than the national average of $45 to $70 per month, said Baunach in the Plain Dealer Commentary.
Baunch provided a Digital C cost estimate of $36 million for “building the citywide broadband backbone to complete the vision.” Baunch called on the Greater Cleveland Community to rally behind securing the funding and acting to close the digital divide.
Cleveland Metropolitan School District
One of the partners of Digital C is the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD). Baunach said Digital C has partnered with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District “to connect 13,000 households with broadband internet service in less than two years.”
The CMSD News Bureau in a May 8th press release reported that CMDS Chief Executive Officer Eric Gordon participated in an online City Club forum titled “Coronavirus Challenge: Bridging Cleveland Education’s Digital Divide.”
The article noted that Gordon said that getting students and families access to virtual studies is especially hard in Cleveland “where up to 40 percent of households lack reliable high-speed Internet and two-thirds are without a laptop or tablet suitable for education.”
Gordon is also cited as saying that “Internet access should be treated like a public utility, not a luxury, and that a long-term solution is necessary.”
Gordon, who currently is the chair of The Council of the Great City Schools, and the CMSD News Bureau article notes that in that capacity he “has called on Congress to pass a coronavirus relief package that, among other concerns, cites problems with Internet access.” In addition to the call for national action the article says that Gordon along with other community leaders are “discussing the need for a local Internet strategy.”
National Digital Inclusion Alliance
Policy Matters Ohio published a guest blog by Bill Callahan, Research and Policy Director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. In his blog, written in early April, Callahan stressed affordability as a big problem limiting internet access to Ohioans. Callahan said, “In 2018, two-thirds of Ohio households without broadband had household incomes below $35,000, and nearly half had incomes below $20,000. The monthly bill for a home internet connection in most Ohio communities is now at least $60 to $70 a month. That’s just not affordable for many Ohioans who are already struggling to get by.”
Callahan said some internet providers are offering free or cheap plans for new users for the next few months in response to the pandemic, but he said many Ohioans can’t take advantage or haven’t heard about these “because they’re not already online.”
Callahan called for governmental, institutional and private sector leaders to support local digital inclusion efforts. He said, “They need home computers or tablets to distribute, money to operate, media exposure, and cooperation from internet providers. Connecting the unconnected must be a community priority or it won’t happen.”
However, Callahan said local action is not enough. He said, “Closing Ohio’s digital divide requires state and federal policymakers to act now.” He noted how far behind other states Ohio is in having the capacity to address this issue.
Callahan suggested some federal actions that could help address this issue:
- The CARES Act appropriated $50 million for the Institute of Museum and Library Services to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, including grants to States, territories and tribes to expand digital network access, purchase internet accessible devices, and provide technical support services.” That’s a good first step, but it’s a tiny drop in a big empty bucket. The next stimulus package must increase the appropriation to at least $500-million, and make clear that this funding is meant to support concrete, practical community action – by libraries, of course, but also by other public and nonprofit organizations as well – that will quickly connect poor and rural households to the internet.
- Congress should also act quickly to create a new, across-the-board federal broadband subsidy that would be available to all households below an income threshold, similar to SNAP or LIHEAP.
- The FCC must pressure all home broadband providers, especially the major cable and telecom incumbents, to offer robust internet connections, free of data caps and disconnections, to all low-income and unemployed households for the duration of the crisis – not just a month or two. Congress should appropriate funding to provide reasonable reimbursement to providers.
- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, along with state Medicaid agencies, must make all costs of home telehealth services – including home internet access, devices and digital skills training for patients who need them – eligible for Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement.
On May 13, Callahan wrote another article on the National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s website(digitalinclusion.org) titled “House Democrats’ COVID Relief Bill includes Emergency Broadband Benefit.” In the article Callahan describes what the HEROES Act proposes:
The new, three trillion dollar COVID-19 relief proposal (the “HEROES act”) unveiled yesterday by Democratic leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives includes $8.8 billion to fund an Emergency Broadband Benefit for consumers who are eligible for Lifeline phone discounts, or have suffered major income loss due to the pandemic.
The Emergency Broadband Benefit proposal would require the FCC to reimburse internet providers up to $50 per month for discounts on “normal” home broadband bills, i.e. services and prices advertised to the general public as of May 1. (The monthly reimbursement for residents of tribal lands would be up to $75.) Providers could also be reimbursed up to $100 per household for computers or tablets supplied to eligible households.
The Emergency Broadband Benefit is designed to begin immediately upon Congressional approval (the FCC is given only seven days to promulgate the necessary regulations), and is authorized to continue for the duration of the Federally declared COVID-19 public health emergency, plus an additional six months. How long the $8.8 billion appropriated by the HEROES Act could support the program is dependent upon how many households use it and thus is unclear. It would not be supported by the existing Universal Service Fund.
Free Press Action
While the United States House of Representatives has passed the HEROES Act, it faces an uncertain future in the United States Senate.
A group called Free Press Action urges public involvement to get the Senators to vote for the HEREOS Act.
Here is part of a message sent out by Free Press Action:
Your Senators need to hear from you before they vote on this important legislation. Tell them to fight for the HEROES Act. The HEROES Act would help people access essential information and services during the coronavirus pandemic by:
- Providing an emergency benefit of up to $50 a month for broadband access, available to people in the FCC’s Lifeline program and to those who have lost jobs or income due to the current crisis.
- Making it unlawful for internet providers to shut off service to individuals and small businesses, or impose data caps and overage fees during the COVID-19 emergency.
- Driving down call rates to and from prisons, jails and detention centers to no more than 4 to 5 cents per minute, and restoring the FCC’s authority to regulate all prison and jail phone-call rates.