Computer trainer and former library aide Shenee King has a bird’s eye view when it comes to digital inequity.
She’s seen students fail assignments because they lack a home computer, and the assignment is in Google classroom. She’s seen middle schoolers fail standardized essay tests because they weren’t taught keyboarding, so they write the test longhand and struggle to type it before their time is up.
The youngsters are victims of a problem that affects residents throughout Ohio, but the issue is particularly acute in Cleveland. Digital exclusion consists of a combination of deficiencies: lack of access to affordable networks and hardware; lack of literacy or skills to navigate, consume, and produce content in the digital sphere; and finally, lack of access to troubleshooting support when broadband or devices break.
The reality of digital exclusion means many are isolated at a time when the Internet enables daily life. From GPS-enabled cars to Bluetooth kitchen appliances to virtual medical consultations, digital access determines tasks from the mundane to the crucial.
“Everything is going digital now, as far as resources for help,” said King, who works with the Cleveland Housing Network. “If you are a veteran and you want to schedule time to see a doctor, you have to go online.”
“If you are in a crisis, in order to get your twelve months of utility bills, you more than likely have to have an online account so you can print (the bills) out, or pull the screen up.”
Based on 2018 statistics from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, Cleveland ranks 33rd in the nation when it comes to completely unconnected households (27.42%), and ranks 33rd when it comes to homes without a wire line (44%).
Cincinnati ranked 158th out of 625. About 17% of households have no broadband of any type. About 30% of households lack a wireline, fiber, cable or DSL. The city ranks 211th when it comes to those metrics.
Columbus ranks 292nd when it comes to households without connectivity, (12.71%) and 297th for when it comes to percentages of households without a wire line (26.53%).
Solving the problem is taking many forms. Local libraries and community organizations offer computer labs and digital literacy training. One nonprofit is building a network to enhance connectivity in some of Cleveland’s poorest communities.
But those fragmented efforts don’t address the most daunting obstacle to digital inclusion: poverty.
About 18% of county residents are poor, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared to a national figure of 12%. More than one-third of Cleveland residents are poverty-stricken – double the county’s percentage and three times as much as the national average.
According to the Pew Research Center, “adults from households earning less than $30,000 a year are far more likely than the most affluent adults to not use the internet (18% vs. 2%).”
A sizeable section of Cleveland residents fall into that income category, according to the Census Bureau. During the past five years, the city’s per capita income was $20,000. Such paltry wages make home-based access a luxury, said Samantha Schartman, CEO of Connected Insights, which provides digital consulting and data research for nonprofits. She helped research and write “Connecting Cuyahoga,” a report on digital equity and inclusion in Cuyahoga County.
The prevalence of poverty means about one-fourth of Cuyahoga County households have no home-based broadband access - including smartphones, according to figures from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. In fact, the Internet is lacking in 51% of households making $20,000 or less annually.
“If you’re making less than $20,000 a year, a $70 internet service isn’t going to help you. About half of those making under $20,000 have no access at all including smartphone access,” Schartman said.
But having a smartphone isn’t a solution to lack of broadband availability. That’s because the devices serve a different function from a computer.
“A smartphone is better than nothing, but it’s much better for consuming information than for creating. It’s much more difficult to say, draft a resume or a school report on a cell phone, than it is on a desktop with Microsoft Office or even Google Docs,” Schartman said.
King doesn’t dispute those findings because her experiences have given her additional insight into the demographics of digital inequity.
The area’s aging population is another factor in the region’s lack of connectedness. The latest estimates from the census show about 18% of county residents are 65 or older. The Pew Center’s research found about 27% adults that age “still do not use the internet, compared with fewer than 10% of adults under the age of 65.”
In Cuyahoga County, more than one-third of senior residents lack internet access, and/or a home computer, according to the “Connecting Cuyahoga” report.
While public devices are available, demand makes them inaccessible. King recalled an elderly client who spent a day on the bus, traveling from library to library in search of a hot spot.
“She went to five libraries; all the hotspots were checked out,” King said.
Who’s Still Disconnected?
From the outside, Arnell Scott seems comfortable in the digital realm. She’s passionate about genealogy, so she spends lots of time on family history sites like Ancestry.com, USGenweb.org, and Familysearch.org. She’s just as enthused about knitting, so she browses YouTube.
“YouTube is excellent, if you run across certain stitches that you don’t know what to do. Go on Youtube,” Scott says.
Nevertheless, on Wednesdays she takes computer training at Warrensville Community Baptist Church. The sessions, which are run by the Cleveland Housing Network, are geared to seniors like her who need a safe space when gaining digital skills.
“I have some knowledge,” she said. “But not enough to do all the things I need to do without assistance. There are things I can do because I go on the sites. But it takes me longer to do (them). (On the sites) I don’t understand when to click certain places, in order to get what I need. Navigation is what I don’t really know.”
King would call Scott a “novice.” The term comes from a matrix King created to classify learners. The levels range from the “Disconnected” who have no skills at all, to “Ambassadors” who can train others.
“Novices probably own a flip phone, and may have a device at home,” King said. “But if they have one, it’s probably outdated. They can get online. They can check email. But they can’t navigate unassisted.”
Those rudimentary skills distinguish novices from the “disconnected,” who have no skills at all. But Scott cannot navigate independently, so she isn’t an “explorer.” They can log into email and get online. Once there, they can browse websites and conduct basic research.
“Navigators” are the next level up.
“These are people who can set advanced levels on your searches,” King said. “You can affect your privacy settings and your cookies. And you can do advanced management in your email: cleaning it out; blocking spam; creating rules.”
“Ambassadors” are fluent enough to go into the community and train others.
Scott sits across from Judith Morgan, another novice. Morgan’s computer experience started with an Apple she got when her children were young. She used the computer for her scrapbooking projects, and she played games. But she didn’t go much further.
“If someone sent me information, it took me time to retrieve it,” Morgan says. “I don’t do my bills or anything like that.”
But she said she didn’t use email, nor other online tasks like paying bills. At the community class, she’s not only learning skills, she’s also learning the language of computers, apps and the Internet.
“The language is like learning a foreign language,” Morgan said. “They come up with emojis and all that stuff. People put it on your phone, and you wanted to reciprocate.”
But Morgan said she answered the “smile” emoji with words and symbols.
“I would put ‘( smile )’ because I didn’t know how to make those emojis, ” she said, with a hearty laugh.
Playing catchup is powerful motivation for seniors who come to take computer classes. Alicia Greasby saw it when people came to her workshops. She ran a computer lab on Cleveland’s west side.
“They want to connect with their grandkids and family,” Greasby says. “They want to know about social media. Then, there’s the necessity: you can’t apply for benefits. Even if you want to register your kids for school? It’s done on a computer.”
Greasby was the digital coordinator for a computer lab in the city’s Detroit Shoreway neighborhood. It’s one of two public labs on the street, and three in the neighborhood.
The community is home to The Gordon Square Arts District, of the city’s trendiest areas with new mid-rises and restaurants. But the neighborhood’s poverty rate is 40%, according to the latest Census figures. That means many residents can’t afford devices nor access.
Those who have mobile phones are hampered by data costs, but using public networks can be challenging. Getting online at restaurants and coffee shops, for example, isn’t free.
“A lot of people treat WiFi like public restrooms,” Greasby said. “You have to be a patron which is prohibitive for those on fixed income, or minimum wage jobs.”
She said folks mostly use the lab to work, not to play.
“I get people applying for jobs, printing resumes,” she said. “I do have people coming in to poke around on Facebook, but that’s way less. People feel like, ‘Oh, I need this job done.’”
What Are The Solutions?
Almost three years ago, DigitalC, a non-profit dedicated to digital equity, and the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority took on the problem of digital exclusion. Their solution married training and networking in a program called “Connect Your Community.”
The project aimed to provide reliable broadband for CMHA residents, while giving them digital skills and devices. The broadband is sent from antennas placed atop a nearby charitable hospital to receivers on nearby housing authority properties and a homeless shelter.
Since its partnership with the housing authority, Digital C has expanded its efforts. It’s now building a network offering affordable, high-speed connectivity to residents of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods.
The project, called EmpowerCLE+, provides high-speed broadband to residents in the city’s Fairfax on the city’s east side, but plans to expand into Hough, Glenville and the Clark-Fulton community on the city’s west side.
In Fairfax, the signal originates from the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Justice Center, which is located in the neighborhood, to surrounding homes. A receiver is placed on a downspout and the signal is routed into the house via ethernet cable. The setup is very similar to the way providers such as Spectrum and AT&T provide access, but the cost is cheaper. Subscribers to the EmpowerCLE+ network pay $18 monthly.
The plan offers efficient broadband to neighborhoods that were subjected to so-called “Digital Redlining.” A 2017 report by Connect Your Community charged AT&T with neglecting to update and improve its networks in several low-income neighborhoods on Cleveland’s east and west sides.
That omission meant internet speed depended on proximity to the wire centers that transmitted the broadband. In order to get faster speeds, customers would have to switch to another internet provider to get faster speeds, but at a much higher cost.
Since then, however, AT&T seemed to be building out its next generation of an upgraded network, known as “fiber to the premises,” in many of the low-income neighborhoods it omitted in the last round. But Bill Callahan, who wrote the 2017 report, said the faster speeds still aren’t available to all neighborhood residents through AT&T.
Callahan, who is the research and policy director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, said the company has lately installed fiber on poles throughout Fairfax, Hough and Glenville. But it hasn’t installed cabinets that channel the signal to individual residences.
“We noticed that … in areas that had been red-lined, there were crews putting up fiber all over the place… Our immediate conclusion was they were about to provide fiber to the premises in all these neighborhoods,” Callahan said.
He said impoverished residents would have especially benefited, because AT&T offers them a substantial discount.
“That was last March. But we can see they haven’t deployed the cabinets that they need in order to provide fiber to the premises, anywhere in Hough, anywhere in Fairfax, and there may be one in Glenville,” he said.
Jim Kimberly, a spokesperson for AT&T, said the company did not redline. In a statement, the company said, “Our investment decisions are based on many factors relating to the cost of deployment and demand for our services. Household income, wealth, race and ethnicity are not factors in these decisions.”
Kimberly would not comment on the company’s plans for installing higher speed broadband in the communities, and said no internet company releases their infrastructure maps.
Dorothy Baunach, CEO of Digital C, said the aim is to create a low-cost network that will especially benefit residents in targeted under-served communities.
“We’re building an (Internet Service Provider), aiming for the areas that AT&T neglected,” Shawn Philpott said. He installs networks in the organization's EmpowerCLE program. Banuach added the organization isn't interested in providing telephone or cable service. “Our goal is to provide Internet at 50 mbps down.”
Shawn Philpott, an installer for EmpowerCLE+, recalled one of his first customers. She was a single mother who needed broadband for her televisions. When she turned on the television, her baby began smiling and clapping.
“At that moment, I felt this is what it’s about,” Philpott said. “Now the mother doesn’t have to worry about whether it’s going to be internet or more groceries. We put her at the point where she can pay the bill and it’s not going to break her. “
Across town, residents in the city’s Old Brooklyn neighborhood have had free wireless access since 2011. The effort was the brainchild of its city councilmember Kevin Kelley.
He got the idea in 2005, when he learned more than half Cleveland residents lacked home internet access.
Schartman said the situation will not improve until city and county governments decide to prioritize digital equity by giving residents a way to get efficient broadband, the training to use it effectively.
“Digital inclusion leadership in the country is more the exception than the rule. Ohio does not lead in this way, and that is why we are one of the worst connected cities, one of the worst connected counties, and worst connected cities in the country,” she said.
But digital equity and inclusion is crucial to well-functioning cities, she said. Schartman cites research showing the level of broadband in a population was directly correlated with economic development.
“That means, when we are looking around at our local economy and we’re not seeing the jobs, we’re not seeing industry coming here. This is just one of the reasons we are not competitive,” Schartman says. “If we could address digital inclusion, we might see revitalization in other areas of our economy as well.”
Afi Scruggs is an award-winning reporter in Cleveland. She specializes in social justice issues.
This article was sponsored by a grant from the Cleveland Foundation.
This article published in partnership with Eye on Ohio, the Ohio Center for Investigative Journalism.