Report: Collaboration Needed To Address Cleveland's Digital Divide

A woman's hands typing on a laptop keyboard.
The new PolicyBridge report finds internet access for Cleveland residents varies greatly depending on income level. [Kartinkin77 / Shutterstock]

Local, state and private entities need to come together and devise a cohesive approach to broadband access in Cleveland and for bridging the digital divide in Northeast Ohio, according to a new report.

About 100,000 households in Cuyahoga County lack reliable internet access and 21 percent of adults are below the lowest level of digital literacy, according to a report from PolicyBridge, a Cleveland-based nonprofit that analyzes and responds to policy issues from an African-American perspective.

“We heard lots of stories about parents not knowing even how to use a capitalization key on a keyboard,” said PolicyBridge Co-founder and Chairman Randell McShepard. “So if you’re asking that parent to help a child with homework, imagine how much of a challenge that would be.”

The digital divide compounds with existing inequities to more directly impact communities of color, McShepard said, and internet service providers (ISPs), don’t have much motivation to fix those issues.

“What we know is that ISPs typically are a bit reluctant to spend a lot of money investing fiber or directing fiber into areas where they may not be able to sell many of their monthly accounts,” McShepard said. “As a result, it’s unlikely that our distressed neighborhoods will have an opportunity to access fiber.”

About 38 percent of Cleveland households with an annual income level of $20,000 or less lack internet access, according to the report. That drops down to about 19 percent for families making between $20,000 and $74,000 a year.

Pilot programs and initiatives like Broadband Ohio help, McShepard said, but there is no one-size-fits-all fix.

“If you think about a state like Ohio, you have a lot of rural communities where they’re wrestling with the same challenge, and the rural communities are different than the urban communities,” McShepard said. “There's different approaches that are needed.”

Cleveland city leaders have a goal of connecting 40,000 households to high-speed internet by 2025, the report said. And funding from the federal COVID-19 stimulus package offers an opportunity to for widespread change. But there’s not enough collaboration between ongoing efforts for that change to come quickly, McShepard said.

“There’s organizations that are trying all sorts of interesting things, but they’re not necessarily talking to each other,” he said.

What’s needed, McShepard said, is a backbone organization or guiding agency to coordinate between schools, nonprofits, pilot initiatives and other efforts dedicated to connecting Cleveland homes to broadband. From there, it would be possible to monitor ongoing efforts cohesively, he said, and better understand what works, what doesn’t work and what else needs to be done – and to help people learn to use the technology once they have it.

“There needs to be a place and a small army of people out there in our communities that can actually stand side by side with people and help them to navigate these what can be a scary internet world,” McShepard said.

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