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Among those who joined City Council for the meeting Monday were people involved with the issue: Dorothy Baunach, Digital C’s CEO; Leon Wilson, the Cleveland Foundation’s director of digital innovation; two representatives from Novarum, the company that engineered a Wi-Fi system a decade ago for Old Brooklyn residents; and Curtis Timmons, the Cleveland schools’ chief information officer who is tackling remote learning in the school district.
All agreed that the causes of the divide, and the solutions, revolve around money.
An Internet connection from a major carrier such as AT&T or Spectrum often is out of reach, topping $50 a month, Wilson said.
“There’s a direct correlation with poverty,” Wilson said. “We use this term [digital divide] so much. What we really should be saying is a lack of social inclusion.”
Fiber optic connections directly to households are the strongest, but also the most expensive systems to build. Wi-Fi systems, boosted by signals from tall buildings or transmitters below the tree canopy or perhaps atop Cleveland Public Power light poles, might be a way to lower the monthly bill.
That has been Digital C’s focus through partnerships with Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority and its Empower CLE projects in several Cleveland neighborhoods.
The Cleveland Foundation has worked similarly with Cleveland schools and through a group called the Digital Equity Coalition.
The system in Old Brooklyn, Kelley’s Ward 13, cost more than $1 million to put together, paid for with a mix of federal funding, city revenues and contributions from private nonprofit sources.
This isn’t the first big social issue City Council has taken on. In recent years, working with Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration, it has pushed initiatives to tackle poisoning from lead paint in houses, high infant mortality rates, the cost to seniors of maintaining their homes on fixed incomes and legal counsel for Impoverished families facing eviction.
But this initiative comes at a time when there is uncertainty about Cleveland’s financial footing. Income tax revenues have declined. And if people don’t return to working downtown, the city could lose tens of millions of dollars of income taxes it collects from suburban commuters.
But the issue is too important to not take on, Kelley said, particularly as Cleveland schools prepare to start the year with at least nine weeks of remote learning.
“If we have nine weeks of remote learning for kids and they don’t have good access, that’s a problem,” Kelley said in an interview with cleveland.com after the hearing.
- Robert Higgs, Cleveland.com