Strapped with Low Internet Access, Cleveland Takes a Close Look at How to Solve Digital Divide

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A bevy of local experts and students met with Cleveland City Council this morning to discussion the digital divide, that long-running narrative that leaves certain communities in the U.S. with less access to the internet and other digital services than other communities. The hearing came about in conjunction with National Digital Inclusion Week.

Bill Callahan, director of Connect Your Community, recognized the importance of getting this hearing together and pointed out the need for finding solutions to the digital divide problem. The key, as the hearing went on, returned time and time again to the matter of neighborhood-level development.

He began by framing the conversation around digital exclusion to further clarify the extent of Cleveland's actual digital inclusion. Using maps to show how high-speed internet access is not available in most low-income neighborhoods in Cleveland, Callahan drew a stark illustration for council. For instance, in 2015, 38 percent of Cleveland households did not have a broadband internet access. (31 percent of households did not have access at all.)

"Guess who didn't have access to the internet? Poor people," Callahan said. "This is very much a neighborhood-tied issue, because poverty is very much a neighborhood-tied issue."

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Samantha Schartman-Cycyk, research director at Connect Your Community, discussed an ongoing survey of Cleveland residents' digital access and internet use. Sharing health and workforce data, Schartman-Cycyk outlined how vital the internet is to daily life (checking medical records, maintaining a social life, seeking employment, gathering new skills online, etc.). Given that the digital divide is so readily apparent in maps, that survey data puts everything in context.

Once all of that is recognized, according to Wanda Davis, director of the Ashbury Senior Computer Community Center, the road ahead includes: digital training, affordable internet and device access and ongoing support for technical infrastructure. It's a collaborative process, as evidenced by the rest of the morning's speakers.

Erika Anthony, senior director of Advocacy, Policy and Research at Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, pointed out the need to get everyone involved not just as users but as engaged creators. Her organization in part works with neighborhoods CDCs to plan economic development through racial equity and digital inclusion.

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The socioeconomic disparities that track with low internet access rates also track with poor health, rampant infant mortality rates, profound and documented barriers to employment and housing, low high school graduation rates — all of which are vibrantly on display in Cleveland's rigidly segregated populations. Internet access is not a panacea, but, like running water, it's become a staple of an improved and healthy life.

Those who are on the wrong side of the digital divide are much less likely to use the array of online services that have been created in recent years (MyChart in the health care world, online job search services, online housing applications).

Adam Perzynski, assistant professor of medicine and sociology at the Center for Health Care Research and Policy at MetroHealth and CWRU, underscored the need for his organization to partner with, e.g., Ashbury Senior Computer Community Center, to provide training in conjunction with MyChart digital health care services. The digital literacy training is vital, and, as he and others pointed out, it must come in tandem with improved broadband access. The opportunity in Cleveland is bountiful.

With that in mind, Lev Gonick, the chief executive of DigitalC, drew attention toward his organization's Connect the Unconnected program, which will "cut the ribbons" on a dedicated wireless network pilot program in the Campus District and Central neighborhood on May 11. This network runs on, Gonick said, "the highest speed known to physics." And training will begin this month, as well, at places like 2100 Men's Homeless Shelter and six Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority properties.

He underscored the hope that this won't simply be a "pilot program," but rather a model for something more aspirational in Cleveland.

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