Cleveland: The Hole in the Digital Economy

“If the next president intends to improve American infrastructure and expand economic opportunities, there’s no better place to start than with the millions of people who still lack broadband access and computer skills.”- David Talbot

Most homes in the United States have Internet service, but they don’t in the poorest parts of Cleveland and nearby suburbs. A survey in 2012 showed that 58% of the area’s households with incomes under $20,000 had neither home broadband nor mobile Internet access, often because of the cost. Another 10 percent had a mobile phone but no home broadband. Fast Internet access is available in a library in Cleveland, but the area is generally considered unsafe to walk in.

There have been numerous attempts to deal with this problem. The region’s public housing agency, the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, recently began giving out tablets and wireless hotspots in a trial program to help close the “homework gap” that’s opened up between kids who have Internet-connected computers at home and those who don’t. AT&T offers a discount program for families receiving food subsidies; in this program, people receive DSL service—far slower than what the government defines as broadband—over phone lines for $5 to $10 a month. AT&T will offer this package for four years as part of its effort to win regulatory approval for its acquisition of DirecTV.

A survey by Pew Research shows that 1/3 of American adults do not subscribe to any Internet access faster than dialup at their home. Many basic tasks, such as finding a job and doing homework, require a reliable Internet connection. People without broadband are not necessarily entirely offline; some of them rely on smartphones. Phones, with small screens and data caps, are not really an adequate substitute for home broadband. Its absence in some communities is a growing problem at a time when the jobs of the future will be increasingly digital: the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 500,000 information technology jobs will be created in the next few years.

Help is on the way for some of Cleveland’s residents. Housing projects are about to benefit from an ambitious project to provide the fastest service in the city using a combination of fiber-optic networks and a new breed of wireless connection. The U.S. lags far behind much of the industrialized world in available broadband speeds and affordability of fast services, a problem that is particularly acute in inner cities and rural areas.

To solve the access problem for more low-income people, Cleveland needs to focus on public or subsidized housing, where 50,000 of the city’s 375,000 inhabitants live. A high-speed fiber-optic network passes through St. Vincent’s Charity Hospital in Cleveland. Built using a 2009 federal stimulus grant, it connects institutions including at least 800 schools, medical facilities, and government buildings in greater Cleveland. Now the plan is to extend the network to residents in the housing projects. A local nonprofit, DigitalC, and its partners plan to give all tenants in the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority refurbished computers and computer training. The county government is additionally working to put more services online, including workforce training, benefits enrollment, and potentially telemedicine appointments.

The digital divide is a pervasive problem in rural areas as well. In order to jumpstart competition in these places, there is a model emerging: let local governments find partners to build out the basic fiber-optic infrastructure, or at least the empty conduit that can carry fiber underground, and then let service providers compete for customers over such networks (or pull fiber through the conduit, as the case may be). This is the model used in Huntsville, Alabama.

Does everyone deserve access to affordable, high-speed Internet, just like water, sewers, electricity, and telephone service? In Cleveland, you can see that the argument could be made. There is never a shortage of people wanting to get online, wanting access to the rest of the world.