Every Cleveland resident could soon have internet access for $18 a month
Citywide broadband may soon be a reality in Cleveland, giving every resident — 35% of whom do not subscribe to in-home internet — access to affordable connection.
Mayor Justin Bibb’s $20 million proposal would build a citywide broadband network within a year and a half, giving every Cleveland household the option to sign up for a monthly subscription of $18 a month. That’s a fraction of the cost of the median high-speed internet price of $75 a month.
The administration selected Cleveland-based nonprofit DigitalC, which already operates in several of the city’s low-income neighborhoods, to expand its existing network.
“Its affordability is a key reason why [we selected DigitalC],” said Senior Policy Advisor Austin Davis.
DigitalC CEO Joshua Edmonds said he is thrilled the company can continue working toward their goal of closing the digital divide, made wider by the COVID-19 pandemic that forced many employees to work from home and students to complete schoolwork online.
“The reality of the digital divide is one that impacts workforce, one that impacts healthcare, education, wellbeing,” Edmonds said.
What’s in the proposal?
If approved by Cleveland City Council, DigitalC would expand its existing broadband that currently serves areas most affected by the digital divide such as Glenville, Hough and Clark-Fulton.
DigitalC promises a quick build time of 18 months, utilizing existing fiber and buildings that would require no digging. Beyond that, the company will go in to build infrastructure in high-density areas to improve internet speed.
The $18 a month plan includes 100 megabits per second, a speed DigitalC promises can accommodate up to six users streaming, gaming or surfing the web. But if users want to opt for higher speed, additional tiers will include $29.99 for 300 mbps or $49.99 for a gigabyte per second.
There will be no income requirement for who can use the service once it’s available.
The $18 a month price is locked in for five years. Beyond that, the administration’s deal with DigitalC is that prices may only be raised based on inflation.
“This is a chance for Cleveland to do something very innovative,” Edmonds said. “I don’t use innovative with a technology part in mind, I actually use innovative as being very thoughtful and taking care of Clevelanders.”
The proposal includes plans for DigitalC to offer education and outreach for users who are not internet natives, such as an introduction to Microsoft Suite or how to identify phishing scams.
“We want to make sure people don’t feel like they have a really fancy tool they can’t use,” Edmonds said. “Some people have a real profound distrust of the internet. This is our chance to make this right on the affordability front, and go beyond that.”
The $20 million to kickstart the program will be funded by the city’s American Rescue Plan Act dollars.
Edmonds said to sustain the network, DigitalC will need at least 23,000 of the city’s more than 170,000 households to subscribe to the service: a goal he said is easily attainable.
Council, community concerns over DigitalC
The proposal is not without skepticism. Councilmember Brian Kazy cited the company’s inability to reach its lofty goal of having 42,000 customers by the end of 2022. The company currently has about 2,000 (Edmonds said the company also provides Wi-Fi to an additional 4,000 users in public housing). Kazy said he’s worried about the “aggressive” 18 month timeline given their track record.
“The expectations that were put out there by DigitalC -- nobody else -- have fallen short,” he said in a Monday afternoon presentation. “It’s a huge concern … And it’s going to fall back on us.”
Edmonds took the helm of DigitalC last November, and he told Ideastream any goal promised before then is not only beyond control, but not in line with the current leadership’s vision. He said the company has historically been focused on bringing service to tough-to-reach residents that require time to build trust, which may not tout large subscriber numbers.
In addition, transient customers may move and fall beyond the current service’s reach, a problem he said would be rectified given a citywide network.
“You can say what you want about us, but at the end of the day, something has to change and we have to drastically rework our expectations about what an internet provider can or should do to connect people who are historically connected and the way we’ve done it in the past will not get us there,” Edmonds said.
DigitalC has been criticized by some parts of the community for what some say is overpromising and under delivering. A previous contract with Cleveland Metropolitan School District fell short of its goals to bring fixed-wireless to 1,000 student households ahead of the 2020-2021 school year. Around the time the school year began, just over 250 households were signed up. That goal was just met in March 2023.
“Just look at the track record and decisions they’ve made in the past,” said Old Brooklyn resident John Geano during the public comment period of council’s May 1 meeting. “The technology is no good, the business model is no good.”
The nonprofit is also relatively new: it was founded in 2015 and began its $18 a month program in 2019.
Edmonds said he is not worried the company’s expanding scale or adoption by residents, citing existing technology, processes, relationships and expertise, as well as a new vision, to make good on their timeline.
“All the things in the past, the skepticism, absolutely right, deserved, but I would say moving forward, our vision is really to grow and scale this as a social enterprise with a higher emphasis on the enterprise part, but never forgetting the origin story of DigitalC,” Edmonds said. “The big difference is in leadership and our approach.”
Edmonds said he hopes council will vote to approve the program ahead of their June recess so DigitalC can begin its build over the summer.