Informing Strategic Investment in Digital Equity: Cleveland/Cuyahoga County

An NDIA Report - Commissioned by the Cleveland Foundation
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Executive Summary

A significant impact on broadband access and use in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County will require a large-scale, broadly collaborative digital inclusion strategy that takes advantage of the deep reservoir of local digital inclusion experience and expertise. NDIA’s intent is that the information presented in this report will contribute to the creation of such a strategy.

This Executive Summary provides specific high-level recommendations with highlights of our learnings. Full lists of Key Points are available at the beginning of each chapter.

Chapter 1 – Cleveland/Cuyahoga County Home Broadband Access & Use

We learned… With broadband connecting three-fourths of its households to the Internet in 2015, Cuyahoga County was close to the national average in its overall broadband adoption rate. The county overall 2015 Digital Divide Index of 40.75 put it at the high end of the second-lowest quartile among counties nationwide (lower=better).

But the available data show that hundreds of thousands of county residents are far less likely to have broadband access than these county-wide averages suggest.

Available data show that the need is greatest among lower-income Cuyahoga County households and particularly for residents of the communities identified here as Digital Equity High Need Areas (DEHNAs): most East Side Cleveland neighborhoods; the city of East Cleveland; several near West Side Cleveland neighborhoods, including Clark-Fulton, Brooklyn Centre, Stockyards, and Detroit-Shoreway; and additional pockets of need in Euclid and the southeast suburbs. There are also significant levels of non-connection associated with some institutional “customer” groups, including Medicaid, SNAP, and users of senior and veterans’ services.

RECOMMENDATION: For maximum benefit, a regional digital inclusion strategy should be designed around increasing the home Internet adoption and entry-level digital literacy within high-need geographic communities and constituencies.

Chapter 2 – Cleveland/Cuyahoga County Home Broadband Available Services

We learned… Fast commercial broadband Internet access (10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream) is generally available from at least two wireline providers in communities throughout Cuyahoga County. The main exceptions to this generalization are certain areas of Cleveland and East Cleveland where AT&T’s legacy ADSL2 service is limited to 6 Mbps, 3 Mbps, or slower downstream speeds, leaving the cable providers (Charter Spectrum and East Cleveland Cable) the sole wireline providers of 10 Mbps+ household access.

Special broadband discount programs from commercial providers include Access From AT&T, Spectrum Internet Assist, and low-cost Sprint 4G service provided by nonprofit reseller Mobile Citizen.

RECOMMENDATION: Despite limitations, broadband discount programs, while they last, could meet the broadband needs of tens of thousands of greater Cleveland households but would require substantial community outreach, training, and support to do so.

We learned… The county primary broadband “availability” issue is the lack of robust commercial home broadband access at a cost below $40 a month. At these prices, home broadband is simply not affordable for county residents with household incomes below the poverty level.

RECOMMENDATION: Considering the limitations of the special broadband discount programs and lack of an affordable option, a significant increase in broadband adoption requires creation of a low-cost broadband service, particularly in low-income neighborhoods.

Chapter 3 – Cleveland/Cuyahoga County Inventory of Current Digital Inclusion Programs

We learned… In general, there are places for residents of Cleveland and the county’s other documented DEHNAs who lack home computer and Internet access to sit down at public-access workstations, access free basic computer training and make use of free public Wi-Fi. While the library systems are a primary source of training, nonprofit community programs are also a major factor, especially in the poorest and worst-connected Cleveland neighborhoods. We must note the presence of training programs in high-need areas tells us nothing about the current adequacy of those programs to meet the actual needs of neighborhood residents.

By themselves, public-access workstations and free Wi-Fi are insufficient to meet connectivity needs. Home broadband access is a necessity. By far the most important gap in digital inclusion resources and services identified by this inventory is the striking lack of public or community programs offering home broadband adoption assistance to unconnected residents in any of the county’s DEHNAs.

RECOMMENDATION: Cuyahoga County, particularly Cleveland and the other identified DEHNAs are in need of neighborhood based broadband adoption programs. These programs should address all aspects of digital inclusion – affordable home broadband access, appropriate affordable devices, digital skills training, and technical support.

Chapter 4 – Comparison Report on Connectivity of Cleveland/Cuyahoga County and Pittsburgh/Allegheny County

We learned… In 2015, only 62% of Cleveland households had broadband Internet access of some kind, while 75% of Pittsburgh households enjoyed broadband connections. Why was Cleveland’s home connection rate so much lower? Four factors seem most likely to help explain this disparity:

Most important, Cleveland is simply poorer than Pittsburgh. Cleveland’s poverty rate in 2015 was 34.7%, while Pittsburgh’s was just 23%.

Cleveland residents at all income levels (including the poorest) are much less likely to have postsecondary educational experience than Pittsburgh residents.

Cleveland was in the depths of its foreclosure crisis during the years (2005-09) when initial home broadband adoption “took off” among lower-income households across the U.S. Thousands of annual home losses may well have suppressed household adoption. Pittsburgh did not experience a comparable crisis and thus may have seen a more “normal” adoption curve.

ŸThe two cities are in states with different legal frameworks for public encouragement of universal broadband deployment. In 2008 the City of Pittsburgh was able to require Verizon to build its new FIOS network out to every neighborhood, while Cleveland had no such power to affect (or even monitor) AT&T’s deployment of its fiber-enabled U-Verse VDSL network. AT&T did not extend its new network to most lower-income Cleveland neighborhoods.

Chapter 5 – National Highlights – Community-Wide Digital Inclusion Coalitions

We learned… the very act of convening stakeholders community wide that are interested in digital inclusion serves to foster partnerships, ownership, commitment, and collaborations. The potential for a community-wide strategy and the stretching of limited resources is most likely when dedicated staff coordinate the coalition’s efforts.

RECOMMENDATION: Whether located in local government, a community-based organization or a library, it must be someone’s job to coordinate coalition meetings, goals, and work.

Chapter 6 – National Highlights – Innovative Digital Literacy Training and Connectivity Solutions

We learned… Digital inclusion programs are evolving to address multiple barriers even if they started out only addressing one barrier (access at home or in public lab, devices, digital literacy). Some programs have already changed services provided, while others are in process. Alternatively, digital inclusion programs are partnering with programs to provide the digital inclusion services that they do not (public access computer labs, affordable home access, low-cost devices, digital literacy training, and/or tech support). The U.S. Department of Commerce National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) grants were instrumental in increasing digital inclusion capacity for those communities that received the grants and for those who prepared for the grants (yet did not receive them). This tells us significant financial investment strengthens the digital inclusion ecosystem of a metro region.

RECOMMENDATION: Digital inclusion capacity that was built with previous investments should be utilized while also recognizing significant financial investment in digital inclusion will further strengthen the digital inclusion ecosystem.