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$20 million donation aims to change Cleveland's broadband access from worst to first

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Posted at 5:33 PM, Jul 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-28 20:26:09-04

CLEVELAND — The David and Inez Myers Foundation and the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Supporting Foundation will donate $20 million to DigitalC, a local non-profit that provides high-speed, wireless internet service to some of the most broadband-starved neighborhoods in Cleveland, which ranks as the county's worst connected large city.

The massive, multi-million dollar grant that aims to help bridge the digital divide in Cleveland and beyond was formally announced on Wednesday afternoon at Midtown Tech Hive. Officials from both foundations said the grants were made after doing due diligence on DigitalC, whose primary mission is to make the region's future more digitally equitable. Lance Frew, the board chairman of DigitalC, said the $20 million in grants will not only spur additional public investment but also accelerate the build-out and staffing increases needed to grow the program at scale.

"What this is going to allow us to do is jump start our entire network and cover hopefully 130,000 households across the city and allow it to happen in a way that will bring together public and private partnerships," Frew said. "This is meant to help bring together the engineering and the personnel needed to really accelerate this."

The donations could also serve as a spark for additional non-profit and philanthropic contributions. Cleveland Clinic, MetroHealth, Dollar Bank and the Cleveland Foundation have previously made six-figure contributions.

The available access to broadband internet services in Cleveland—or lack thereof—became all-too-apparent at the onset of the pandemic. Monica Malik said she has been unable to get broadband internet service on her street in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood and she was seriously concerned that her son would fall behind last March.

"At that time, everything was shut down. The whole city, libraries, everything. My son wouldn't have been able to do his work," Malik said.

Minutes after receiving a flier in the mail from DigitalC, Malik signed up and has been ecstatic with the service ever since. Her partner, Johnnie Mayhew, also signed up for DigitalC to service his apartment in the Hough neighborhood. Mayhew especially was appreciative for the digital literacy information that DigitalC provided.

"It's very useful, very useful if you use it correctly. But you have to understand what you're doing on [the internet]," Mayhew said.

The lack of available broadband service in a major city in the most developed country in the world at first sounds like an absurdity. However, for tens of millions of Americans, it is a daily reality.

A study recently conducted by the broadband availability tracking organization, BroadbandNow, recently found that the number of unconnected Americans is actually twice as big as what the FCC indicates. The FCC's broadband access maps are notoriously flawed because they rely on internet service providers to provide the data and the FCC's own methodology considers a census block as being 'served' if only one house in the census block has access.

cleveland broadband access

In the above map, areas shaded in light blue have fewer internet service options while those in darker blue have a greater number of service options. BroadbandNow's conservative estimates place the number of Americans without broadband access at over 40 million, roughly 12% of the population.

CMSD's CEO, Eric Gordon, said the digital inequities became even more obvious in 2020 as educators were suddenly pushed into remote learning scenarios.

"You go online to apply for their unemployment benefits. You get online for legal assistance. You get online to find food, go online to go to school. The problem is, you can't keep America connected until you connect America," Gordon said. "We must make the digital divide a thing of the past and make high speed, high quality affordable internet a public utility not a privilege."

The $20 million donation will help DigitalC do that, officials said. Leslie Dunn, the president of the David and Inez Myers Foundation, said the push for more broadband access is a common thread in many of the foundation's other initiatives, particularly those centering around healthcare and education.

"I'm not sure there's anything one can do well right now—in this period of time—without broadband," Dunn said. "The delivery of all of these things that we are supporting in other ways would be emphatically improved and broadened through the ability of people to access it through broadband. In a way, COVID was an opportunity—it has been a challenging time—but it opened our eyes to that opportunity especially. This is a long term solution to the problem—not a short term."

Frew said the DigitalC's goal is to provide high speed internet service to 130,000 households in Cleveland within the next three years.

"By bringing the cost down, making it affordable and improving the quality that is available, we hope to bridge that digital divide," Frew said.