The time to merely talk about addressing the digital divide in Cleveland must come to an end. City government must lead the development and creation of broadband internet access for all city residents, and the necessary support technology to create universal digital inclusion across our community. As a Brookings Institution study from March 2020 reports:
While the average broadband adoption rate for households in Cleveland’s majority-white neighborhoods is 81.2%, the average is just 63% in Black-majority neighborhoods, based on 2018 American Community Survey 5-year data. Broadband adoption is both a lagging and leading indicator of economic growth and prosperity, meaning these numbers are a sign of the existing economic inequities in Black communities as well as the barriers to greater prosperity in the future.
Defining the Digital Divide
What is the digital divide? To me, it is simple: those with access to technology will be able to participate in the knowledge economy, and those who do not have access will be left behind. Digital inclusion means more than access to Wi-Fi networks. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance defines digital inclusion as:
(T)he activities necessary to ensure that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). This includes 5 elements:
- affordable, robust broadband internet service
- internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user
- access to digital literacy training
- quality technical support
- applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation, and collaboration
The pandemic has heightened the awareness and relevance of the digital divide in Cleveland. Access for students, professionals and others who need the ability to work from a residence or remote location has ceased to be a luxury and is now a necessity. The problem in Cleveland is serious and is a glaring example of inequity in our community.
My Record on Digital Inclusion
For these reasons, I held a City Council hearing in August to begin to tackle the gap in internet access that has prevented as many as two-thirds of Cleveland school children from receiving their education remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic. As I said then:
Now is the time to strike. The goal is to come up with a plan that City Council can be a partner in … and support to get to the finish line, which is to provide affordable, accessible service to all Clevelanders.
I brought free Wi-Fi service to Ward 13 in 2010 – a process not without challenges and that served as a significant learning experience. The result, however, was that every resident in my Ward had access to the internet through a public system. We must bring this opportunity to everyone who lives in Cleveland.
Solution: An Office of Digital Equity
From Boston to New Orleans and Seattle to Louisville, cities are tackling different aspects of the problem – including network gaps, affordable devices, and subscriptions, and skill development.
As Brookings noted in another paper, “broadband has become essential infrastructure” in our society, and our newest kind of utility service must be provided, universally. If elected, I propose creating a Cleveland Office of Digital Equity and its required infrastructure.
This office would address the comprehensive list of issues noted above that make digital inclusion possible:
- Understanding Community Needs: We have a general idea of the elements of the digital divide, but we need to first speak with and gain greater understanding of how Cleveland residents see this problem. We need to listen and create an action plan.
- Access to Networks: The most crucial element of digital inclusion is the ability for all residents to access affordable wireless services. Through a combination of infrastructure improvements and partnerships with private and non-profit entities, Cleveland can meet this goal. But this will require resources and will likely involve the build-out of access points throughout the neighborhoods.
- Affordable Devices and Subscriptions: The Covid-19 pandemic has forced immediate action on making devices available to students. A Digital Equity office could expand this effort – while also partnering with existing broadband providers for expansion of low-cost subscriptions.
- Digital Skill Development: Digital equity is not created by equipment and subscriptions alone. Skill development is a necessity for students, workers, senior citizens, and all residents in order to truly address this issue.
Digital inclusion is a particularly challenging issue, and I will always be transparent and realistic about what can be done and how quickly. But I am certain that this is an absolute priority for Cleveland, and I will jumpstart this effort as Mayor.