The past year highlighted the importance of digital access, as schools, workplaces and many essential services moved online. In Northeast Ohio, the year also highlighted the growing problem of digital exclusion: a crippling lack of access to the hardware, software, high-speed internet and technical skills necessary for success.
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance studied large and medium-size cities across the U.S. and in 2018 ranked Cleveland as one of the country’s “worst connected” metropolitan areas, with nearly a third of households completely unconnected. The 2019 Connecting Cuyahoga report, funded by the Cleveland Foundation and Cuyahoga County, found that half of local households earning less than $20,000 annually lacked home internet access.
For students in unconnected households, completing schoolwork is a daily struggle: Nationwide, this digital divide prevents one in five high school students from completing homework, according to a Pew Research report. The study found that teens from the lowest income households were more than two and a half times more likely to lack a reliable computer at home, more than twice as likely to rely on public Wi-Fi for homework, and 10 percent more likely to use their smartphone to complete homework, compared to their wealthier peers.
As everything from school information to job interviews to health records moves online, families with less access to technology face a widening opportunity gap, according to the Greater Cleveland Digital Equity Coalition, a group of over 70 organizations advocating for digital equity in Northeast Ohio.
The group’s 2020 letter calling for federal support of digital connectivity initiatives urged legislators to prioritize digital inclusion before local students fall further behind: “We urge you to consider the importance of the above priorities, each of which will make a marked difference in closing Cleveland’s digital divide during a period in which broadband access has never been more critical.”
Building Community Pathways
The Connecting Cuyahoga report revealed that affordability remains a significant barrier to digital equity, according to Cuyahoga County Chief Innovation and Performance Officer Catherine Tkachyk. To establish a sustainable, low cost community internet service, the county partnered with DigitalC, a nonprofit internet service provider, to offer high-speed internet access to local households for $18 per month. Nationally, the average monthly cost for high-speed internet is around $60, per Leichtman Research Group.
Public libraries have long provided computer and internet access for cardholders, but the pandemic limited access to these vital resources. Thanks to a 2020 partnership with the Cleveland Foundation, the Cleveland Public Library System, the Cuyahoga Public Library System and Huntington Bank, local residents could borrow a mobile hotspot from a library to access the internet at home. Speaking with the National Association of Counties, Tkachyk reported that the mobile hotspot program included 710 hotspots available at Cuyahoga County Library branches. During the pandemic, all 710 were consistently checked out.
Then came an even more pressing challenge — scaling digital equity programs to meet the rapidly escalating need for connectivity. Last spring, the pandemic highlighted the need to expand affordable access to reliable high-speed internet as schools across Ohio transitioned to online classes. A 2020 study by Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) found that two-thirds of the district’s students lacked a device for remote schooling and some 40 percent didn’t have internet access at home.
To bridge the digital divide, the district, which has around 40,000 students, purchased 27,000 laptops and 13,500 mobile hotspots. A few months later, Cuyahoga County and the Cleveland Foundation announced a $4 million partnership with T-Mobile to provide 10,000 computers and 7,000 Wi-Fi hotspots to support students learning remotely.
Helping more students and families get online is an important step toward greater digital equity. But without the skills to navigate the digital world, students will continue to struggle. Because digital literacy is increasingly important to school and career success, organizations like DigitalLearn.org and The Literacy Cooperative of Northeast Ohio offer digital skills training for students and parents.
Access to the internet and devices can’t completely solve the problem of digital equity or resolve the digital void revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to CMDS CEO Eric Gordon. “When we shut down in Ohio, we told people, ‘go home, stay at home, apply for unemployment online, apply for jobs online, go to school online, go to your doctor online,’” Gordon noted in a recent interview with the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative. “We need to broaden this conversation… This is not (just) a school problem, this is a problem of the internet not being a public utility in this country.”
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health and family journalist.