Bill Callahan on Digital Equity History and NE Ohio Challenges - Building for Digital Equity Podcast

Building for Digital Equity

Bill Callahan, Executive Director of Connect Your Community, joins Christopher Mitchell to talk about some of the history of digital equity and the before-times that led to the formation of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. We also discuss Cleveland and later NE Ohio more specifically after exploring how Internet access has changed in the area since their landmark report, "AT&T’s digital redlining of Cleveland."

This show is 19 minutes long and can be played on this page or using the podcast app of your choice with this feed.

Transcript below. 

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Thanks to Joseph McDade for the music. The song is On the Verge and is used per his Free-Use terms.


Rough Transcript...

Christopher Mitchell (00:05):
Before Sean does his intro, I wanted to make sure that you knew that on June 7th, 2023 at three o'clock Eastern time, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance is once again teaming up with the National Digital Inclusion Alliance for a building for Digital Equity livestream. It's gonna be great. You should check it out at building for digital Thank you.

Sean Gonsalves (00:29):
Hey, this is the Building for Digital Equity Podcast where we talk to people working to expand internet access, address affordability, teach digital skills, or distribute affordable devices. We talk with those working on the front lines of giving everyone everywhere the opportunity to participate fully in the digital world, whether in rural areas or cities. Our guests here are doing the often unglamorous jobs in places that have been left behind. This show comes to you from the Community Broadband Networks team at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, where we have long produced the Community Broadband Bits podcast and the Connect This Show Building for Digital Equity features. Short interviews from Emma Guttier, Christopher Mitchell, and me, Sean Go Gonzales talking to people at the events we are attending, to highlight the interesting work and inspirational stories to get internet access to everyone. Now let's see who we have today.

Christopher Mitchell (01:28):
I'm Christopher Mitchell, and I'm talking with Bill Callahan, who on his name tag, is listed as Connect Your Community Institute, but is also a co-founder of N dia, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Welcome.

Bill Callahan (01:41):
Thanks. Glad to be here.

Christopher Mitchell (01:42):
What is Connect Your Community?

Bill Callahan (01:44):
Oh, connect Your Community is a little nonprofit. We started in Cleveland 10 years ago basically to do a bunch of chores supporting digital inclusion efforts in the city. And one of the things, first things we did was the original at and t redlining report. we were the co-publisher along with N D I A, kind of did the research, but it's that kind of, you know, somebody has to sponsor it. You gotta have somebody who's a C3 and can handle money to do that. <laugh>, it's, it's unstaffed. I'm the director. I don't get paid for it.

Christopher Mitchell (02:16):
So that report, well, it was well received. It seemed almost earth shattering in that it had a level of data we had not seen before, that you had collected about the extent to which some neighborhoods were served and other neighborhoods had not been upgraded in two decades.

Bill Callahan (02:34):
Well, since 2007. Yeah. 2005.

Christopher Mitchell (02:37):
So, so 15 years Yeah. At that time. About Right. so what's that, what's changed since then?

Bill Callahan (02:45):
well, since the, the report was based on AT&T'S V D S L Uverse upgrade.  which was, you know, the not quite fiber system that they've got. which sends fiber out to a, a cabinet in the neighborhood, and then the copper goes from there. So you get a hundred megs sometimes, or Right. Maybe you don't get that much. but that was their product. and they did that between 2008 and 2011.
So we, we were looking in 2017 at the complete, you know, the result of the complete deployment in 2017 or 2016, they started doing actual fiber. and so they, and they kind of finished that off by 2019 for that round. So what's happened is that we've seen their, the fiber added to the vdsl and that did do some, a few neighborhoods, including some low income neighborhoods that hadn't been done before. But now we have the complete picture for the sum of those two deployments, which still leaves about 40% of the city, including the entire Northeast side, without anything better than 2005 style ADSL , which translated means most people are getting 10 megs or worse.

Christopher Mitchell (04:02):
And they're paying the same amount as people are getting

Bill Callahan (04:04):
and they're paying the same amount of money. Yes, they are.
Everybody pays $60 a month.

Christopher Mitchell (04:08):
Yeah. It's wild. Yeah. Now, how did you find yourself doing this work?

Bill Callahan (04:15):
well, I started doing computer training and cheap computers for, you know, people in the neighborhood work in, in 1995 at a community development corporation that I was then the director of which had a lot of people in the neighborhood who were in the quote, welfare to Work program. , which used to exist . Right. and were being told by prospective employers that they needed to know how to use a computer, which was, you know, not something easy to learn . and so we just basically fell into the idea of getting some old computers for people fixing 'em up and doing some classes. and so that had people, you know, in line down the block and around the corner and we said, oh, this, this is something <laugh> and ended up creating a neighborhood computer center, and it went from there.

Christopher Mitchell (05:08):
What's, what's kept you in the work?

Bill Callahan (05:11):
Well, I, I would be lying if I didn't say part of it is just that once you, you know, kind of have a niche in doing something that you know nobody else, well, no longer is it truth that nobody else will do it. Right. <laugh>. But for a long time you know, somebody had to keep hacking at it or it wasn't gonna get hacked at.

Christopher Mitchell (05:28):
Other people were like, I might do this, but Bill's already got it covered.

Bill Callahan (05:32):
sort of, it was more like, there isn't any money, so somebody who has to do it, who you know  is, you know, can somehow handle that. that's part of what kept me in the work. But part of what kept me in the work is as they think now a lot of people appreciate is a very important issue for a community like Cleveland and a very gray unrecognized issue until Covid hit.
I think it's fair to say that there was no foundation interest in digital inclusion as we now call it in Cleveland until, you know, five years ago. certainly before Covid, but not very, but not by very much.

Christopher Mitchell (06:17):
Right. The Cleveland, the Cleveland area foundations, I think are still ahead of the game. Yes. But for those of us that have been doing it for a long time, we're still kinda like trying to drag the, a lot of foundations into this work cuz a lot of communities don't have a foundation that's really into it yet.

Bill Callahan (06:31):
My friend Leon Wilson at the Cleveland Foundation, who has made some remarkable things happen in Cleveland 

Christopher Mitchell (06:37):
including giving people a great chance to move forward. Like Josh Edmonds, who's done remarkable work at his start in his work there,

Bill Callahan (06:43):
a little hot house out of his fellowship program.
Right. <laugh>. but I mean, Leon kind of arrived on the scene in 2016 or 2015 and really kind of dragged the foundation into this work. but you know, Leon kind of looks back at the 20 years prior and says, eh, a bunch of stuff went on, but it never really got any traction. I look at it and say, well, yeah, cuz the Cleveland Foundation was helping <laugh>. So, but I mean, I think that's the answer to your question is that it was important and keeping the group of people, the growing group of people who understood it together  we went through BTOP and got 19 million to spend, ran a project, money was gone, we were back on the street. so we've gone through that whole cycle of things in the city as has happened in a number of other places around the country.

Christopher Mitchell (07:34):
Let's just, let's just make sure people understand what you're talking about. Yeah. I, this is a, a unique situation that could never be repeated where people were doing the work and suddenly the federal government made money available and there was more people that came into that work. And the money went away, and then there was nothing in many places to support the people who had been doing the work. And so they had to go and find other things to do.

Bill Callahan (07:53):
And this is actually the reason we have National Digital Inclusion Alliance because there was this period, and, and just to be clear, this was the Obama stimulus,

Christopher Mitchell (08:02):
right? 2009 is when the bill passes and money starts getting out. 2010, 2011,

Bill Callahan (08:07):
all over by 2012 . Right. But in the course of that, there was a quarter of a billion dollars, it was available for so-called broadband adoption mm-hmm.
, right. Sustainable broadband adoption. And so a number of organizations that had been running community computer centers or you know, some sort of instructional programs or you know, doing refurbished computers all of a sudden had some place to go for substantial kind of strategic operating money for a couple of years.  and a lot of stuff grew up out of that process and a lot of relationships were formed and then the money was gone. And with a couple of striking exceptions like Boston, where technology goes home, managed to build something which really had legs  with the city and is therefore still there and still doing enormous levels of work. But for the most part, that didn't happen. And so people were back to where they were three years earlier. what really happened, what happened with N D I A was that because we had had a lot of relationships built during that time Angela Siefer and a couple of other people had the bright idea of starting to pull together a bunch of unfunded groups and try to build support for funding.
And here we are at the n d ia conference with 800 people  listening to the Secretary of Commerce talk about the distribution of, you know, $2 billion. o, so that, that's a real different environment. but I, the that environment only really began to gel after 2016. And in Cleveland it began to gel when the Cleveland Foundation started taking an interest,

Christopher Mitchell (09:45):
speaking of a change in environment. Yes. Which you just referenced. Yes. You had a change in environment. And I feel like after 20 years of doing this work, you, a new perspective may have been forced on you in a new, in a new environment.

Bill Callahan (09:59):
Yes. Well post covid. Right. and for family reasons I'm now not living in Cleveland anymore which I, I wish, kind of wish I was, cuz I'm a Cleveland boy, but I'm living in a semi-rural county of 70 miles to the East Astra Bill County

Christopher Mitchell (10:21):
first LeBron, then Bill.

Bill Callahan (10:22):

Christopher Mitchell (10:23):
Leaving Cleveland. First LeBron. First LeBron then Bill.

Bill Callahan (10:26):
Yes. I took my talents to Pier Pon Township <laugh> pier Pon Township is, you know, 500 households, no incorporated entities. probably fifth of the farm properties, which is everybody are Amish. and we live in a house we built in Apache Woods. you know, everything between us and the state highway is Amish. that's our neighbors . And so we pay Windstream, which was very nice about running a single phone line down a couple of poles when we had to put in the electricity to our house. We pay them 93 bucks a month for 10 meg service. Right. So that's a perspective that's different from the city <laugh> and a lot of people in the county think we're lucky to have it. Right. so yes, so I now have a very personal perspective on the rural broadband problem.
But I will tell you that that same 93 bucks is being paid by people on Ashtabula who also have Windstream service. and so all it's really done is reinforced to me the fact that there is actually very little difference between the rural broadband issue and the city digital equity issue. It all comes down to what can you get and for how much. And you know, the, the underlying technical problems technology problems I just kind of take a backseat to the who controls it. And how much they charge. Right. <laugh> and, and interestingly you know, we have a broadband task force in the county, which, you know, is run by a Republican commissioner, and which I go to meetings of and help out on. And one of the big projects is that they took some ARPA money and they're paying for the installation of some wisps on towers and some of the most underserved townships.
Meanwhile, I continue to work with digital with digital C in Cleveland, which is basically building out wisp service.  in red line neighborhoods in Cleveland for exactly the same reason. <laugh>

Christopher Mitchell (12:38):
for some of the folks that are newer, the wisp is a wireless isp

Bill Callahan (12:42):
Wireless isp. Yep. And it's the same technology. Right. and I keep, you know, telling 'em they should be talking to each other because they're doing the same thing and roughly for the same reason. And but you know, one of them is in the heart of the inner city and one of them is out in very rural territory,

Christopher Mitchell (12:59):
but both have significant poverty. I'm sure.

Bill Callahan (13:02):
Well, actually, it's not really a, the poverty issue.

Christopher Mitchell (13:04):
Okay. So rural areas can have a lot of poverty. Yeah. But in this case, not the case.

Bill Callahan (13:10):
Well, in this case not the case. But in this case, there are people, there are plenty of people who are on the edge.  there, there, I mean, Ville county actually has one of the highest poverty rates in Ohio, and some of that is the city of Ashtabula, right? . But some of that is the fact that there is a great deal of kind of marginal income for in the rural townships as well.

Christopher Mitchell (13:35):
Well, I was wondering about that. I mean, a lot of the, the folks that are Amish probably aren't claiming a whole lot of income. Well, yeah. It's always wondering how that changes the status.

Bill Callahan (13:43):
That's excuse a little bit, but, but I, no, I'm, I'm talking about people who Sure. You know, and for the most part are, you know, they're still in farm properties or they're in little houses and, you know, little township center or something mm-hmm.
, but they just aren't making very much money. There isn't a lot of money to be made for the most part. So it's a challenge when somebody wants to charge you a hundred bucks for crappy service. but that's what you have available. And so that's kind of the broadband problem to a large extent that's being confronted. and and it's not different from the broadband problem in Glenville in City of Cleveland.

Christopher Mitchell (14:16):
Now, that said, I feel like you have a solution on the horizon and that the bead dollars are meant for Ash Debu, Bula County, but they are not meant the way they were designed for as much for Cleveland's inner city communities.

Bill Callahan (14:27):
Oh. They're not designed at all for the inner city communities. it, Cleveland has because Cleveland still had municipal franchising when the current cable system was built 
which is built in 2001, therefore it was built to every corner of the city on a, on a three year schedule with reports to city council and financial penalties. Right. So it got built right and then it got taken over by Time Warner, and then it got taken over by Charter, but it's still the same system and it hasn't required huge technology upgrades or, you know, physical upgrades  to still be useful. Obviously that's not true with at and t. so something different has happened. Right. as a consequence, no bead money, forget it.  there, that's, you're out of the question. I do think that the s the the state of Ohio which has actually a very good broadband office is, understands that part of the problem it should confront is the affordable affordability issue for inner city areas.
and so we may find some ways marginally to get some advantage from all this federal money that isn't just digital equity, but there's no question that bead money is really meant to be directed to those townships I was talking about. I think we're gonna find a very interesting phenomenon by the time we get around to seeing that money, which is, it's gonna be very patchwork. Right. There's gonna be lots of places that have gotten you know, Adelphia has kind of, not Adelphia, I'm sorry,

Christopher Mitchell (16:01):
now Charter Spectrum after a couple of interim companies.

Bill Callahan (16:04):
Yeah. Well, I'm, I'm confused because the, a Delph successor company is actually in that county as well. Oh, okay. Right. and and there's a funny story about that, which I will not tell now <laugh>, but but no a charter Right, right.
is is a big provider in the county, Windstream, which is a kind of second tier phone company,  is has fiber in a number of parts of the county. And, and then there we have CenturyLink in the, you know, bottom half of the county, which is now something or other, I can't remember the name.

Christopher Mitchell (16:32):
Lumen. Lumen in some cases.

Bill Callahan (16:33):
It's not Lumin, it's something

Christopher Mitchell (16:34):
Oh, it's so bright. Speed or bright.

Bill Callahan (16:36):
Yeah. It's bright speed. Bright speed, and and they have terrible service  and but that whole thing is a really mixed bag and it's gonna change as money flows. Right. and we also had one of these commitments from your friends in Minnesota or, or Wisconsin

Christopher Mitchell (16:57):

Bill Callahan (16:58):

Christopher Mitchell (16:59):
Ltd is Minnesota.

Bill Callahan (17:00):
Yeah. I was supposed to get L t d fiber service
On my, on my Amish Road Yeah. In Estu County. Sure. so now we're, that's not gonna happen, but nobody else will get that money either. Right. And Starry supposedly is gonna provide that in the township to the south. Okay. And that's not gonna happen either, right. Yeah. Right. So the slate plans, so there's gonna be all kinds of claims being made. We have a completely fake company claiming to provide 10 gig service. Oh, 10 gigs service all over the township. Yeah. Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell (17:30):
If you're gonna lie, why not go big

Bill Callahan (17:31):
and, and I, they don't exist. Right. But, but they're, you know, they're as they're on the FCC map right now. Right. Sure, sure. So it's gonna be a weird situation when it comes to how bead money gets used.

Christopher Mitchell (17:45):
I think it is. there's a lot more I wanna talk to you about.
These are supposed to be short interviews, so we're gonna have to cut it off there.

Bill Callahan (17:52):
Okay. It's, it's, well, there you go. 2, 2, 2 sides of my life. <laugh>.

Christopher Mitchell (17:55):
That's right. And, and we've done we've talked in the past. I, we'll be talking in the future again. one of the things people can do is definitely as we're working through this series they can suggest topics that we should talk about. And so we're gonna keep a tally and then whether I run into again in person or whether we do it over Zoom, we'll do it, we'll pick it up again.

Bill Callahan (18:14):
Yeah. Well, let's talk about the politics of everybody losing $30 a month from their bills in about a year.

Christopher Mitchell (18:20):
Yes. I think that's gonna be a, a hot topic pretty soon, especially if we see some of the increased signups that I hear some people thinking is gonna be happening soon. Because right now I think we're forecasting that we got 18 months maybe, maybe on like a good if fewer people take it, but a lot of people start signing up. That's gonna run out in about a year.

Bill Callahan (18:38):
Well, it's been running at $400,000 a month for a long time. Yes. Yeah. Yeah. Thanks you so much for your time today, bill. Thanks, 

Chris. Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Sean Gonsalves (18:47):
We thank you for listening. You can find a bunch of our other podcasts at Since this is a new show, I'd like to ask a favor, please give us a rating wherever you found it, especially at Apple Podcast. Share it with friends. You can even embed episodes on your own site. Please let us know what you think by writing Finally, we'd like to thank joseph for the song on the Verge.