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EmpowerCLE internet connection plan accelerated because of the coronavirus pandemic

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Posted at 5:44 PM, Jul 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-29 20:27:22-04

CLEVELAND — A five-year plan to connect disadvantaged communities to reliable internet service is being accelerated into a two-year plan because of the increased need for digital connectivity during the coronavirus.

“Our mission is to make Cleveland’s digital future equitable,” said DigitalC Administrative Director Angela Bennett.

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Masked ambassadors knock on doors in the Hough neighborhood to tell residents about EmpowerCLE.

DigitalC is a non-profit that’s been working on closing the digital divide around Cleveland for the past few years. At first, DigitialC connected three CMHA highrises with internet access. Now, the group’s initiative EmpowerCLE is connecting entire neighborhoods with reliable and relatively cheap internet service.

The Clark-Fulton, Central, Fairfax, Hough, Glenville, and Woodhill Estates are the first neighborhoods to get connected because Bennett says those are the areas that have the greatest need. The plan is to eventually connect all of Cleveland.

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This CWRU map shows Home Owners' Loan Corporation risk appraisals from 1940. Yellow and Red show less favorable appraisals, and also show where some of the worst internet connections exist in greater Cleveland.

“We call it the poverty crescent,” said Bennett. “It’s in areas that are not only the least-connected, but it has the highest poverty rates,” said Bennett, pointing out that they also tend to have the lowest median income and highest levels of unemployment.

Bennett says the map of the worst-connected communities tends to mirror Cleveland’s mortgage redlining map.

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"If you can afford it, then you don't have access," said Bennett.

Across the nation, Bennett says Cleveland is one of the worst-connected cities, but the real impact is in the specific statistics.

“That’s almost 50,000 households, not individuals, households in Cleveland that are either unconnected or under-connected to the internet,” said Bennet.

“Unconnected” means a lack of any internet access at all. “Under-connected” refers to households that have a connection that is less than 25 megabits per second (mbps), the FCC benchmark for internet service.

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Ambassadors leave notices on the porches of homes where they don't make contact with someone who lives there.

EmpowerCLE will provide 50 mbps access for less than $20 per month for customers.

“You can’t say, ‘Hey, [internet service] is here but only if you had X amount of dollars a month, then you could have access,” said Bennett. “Then it’s not access at all.”

Many people aren’t even going to have to pay the $20 per month. In Clark-Fulton, Bennett says Metroheatlh is providing a $10 subsidy to cut the cost more than in half. The Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) is covering the subscription for student families while they are in the district.

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CMSD students will start the school year completely online, putting added pressure on internet connections that are already weak.

See News 5's coverage of CMSD's reopening plan here.

“Not only did 40 percent of our families not have connectivity, two-thirds of our families didn’t have a device other than a cell phone to connect with,” said CMSD CEO Eric Gordon.

The district had already been spending millions of dollars buying around 9,800 hotspots for district families and 16,000 devices for those families to connect to the internet so students could get school work done.

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Ambassadors compare address lists while they reach out to the Hough neighborhood to tell residents about EmpowerCLE.

With DigitalC, Gordon says the district has already connected 115 families with more waiting to be connected soon.

“This is reallocating our priorities, this is spending here instead of spending somewhere else,” said Gordon, driving home how the coronavirus has quickly made connectivity much more important for education.

Nearly overnight, not only have students had to shift learning online, but their families had to start going to the doctor, file for unemployment, and limit social gatherings to computer screens.

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"We're not going to put our kids and community at risk when they're telling us they're not comfortable, they don't feel safe, and the evidence tells us they're right," said CMSD CEO Eric Gordon talking about the decision to start the school year online.

To get families signed up, a team of ambassadors has been walking through neighborhoods to get people signed up.

One of them is Cleveland State University rising-sophomore Trevon Melton, who grew up in the Hough neighborhood and knows what it’s like to not have great internet.

“At first, we had some really bad WiFi, I’m not going to lie to you,” said Melton, talking about trying to do school work at home in high school.

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Ambassadors talk to Hough residents about signing up for affordable, reliable internet.

Now, he and his fellow ambassadors are doing door-to-door, with masks, seeing if his neighbors could benefit from EmpowerCLE’s project.

“It’s very important because a lot of people don’t have WiFi in their homes, or they do but it’s really bad or slow,” said Melton.

If you’re struggling to get connected to the internet, experts say you can:

  • Reach out to EmpowerCLE and see if it’s in your neighborhood, allowing you to connect to the internet through them.
  • If you live around Akron, ConnectHome Akron might be able to help get hooked up to the internet
  • Groups like PCs for People might be able to help get devices to use on the internet if you qualify.

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