Cleveland Seeks Partner to Turn ‘Worst-Connected City’ into Smart Fiber City

Three years ago, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) ranked Cleveland as the worst-connected city in the United States (with more than 100,000 households).

City leaders are now using its American Rescue Plan funds to make that dishonorable distinction a thing of the past with a plan to invest $20 million to get the “Comeback City’s” digital future rockin’ n rollin’.

Although the city (pop. 383,000), home to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, is currently underserved by AT&T, Charter Spectrum, and T-Mobile, earlier this summer the city issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) that “seeks one or more partners” to help bridge Cleveland’s digital divide following a two-phased approach that first addresses the city’s immediate needs before tackling its longer-term strategic goals.

More specifically, the RFP details “the Phase I goals: ensuring that individuals who do not engage online can become full Internet users as quickly as possible, relying on digital adoption and affordable access strategies. (While) the Phase II goals (envision) —ubiquitous fiber optic connections and Smart City deployments.”

Or, as Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb told Cleveland.com:

The first phase is on making sure on the short-term basis we connect as many families as we can to high-speed broadband, and the second phase will consist of making sure we lay fiber all across the city so we can be competitive, not just five years from now, but 20, 30 years from now, as a city and as a region.

Technically, the RFP that was issued is to fully implement the first phase of the city’s vision and set the table for the second phase. Work beyond the $20 million the city has set aside would require the issuance of a second RFP.

Phase 1: Adoption and Affordability

Acutely aware of just how many Clevelanders are being left in the digital dust, the first phase of the city’s plan, according to the RFP, aims to reach two immediate goals:

• Every Cleveland resident has the opportunity to acquire the skills, education, tools, and support needed to effectively engage online.

• Every Cleveland household has access to an affordable, high-quality broadband service plan that will stay affordable and keep pace with consumer demand over time.

As it relates to adoption, the city is looking for a partner (or partners) to help develop a detailed strategy that “involves grassroots outreach, advertising, educational services, training or skills-building, device provision, resident follow-up for evaluation, and general support to Clevelanders who need it ... and, in doing so, provide data than can further inform the city’s work to close the digital divide.”

In a city where, according to U.S. Census figures, the poverty rate (32 percent) is more than twice as high as the state’s poverty rate (13.6 percent), to alleviate broadband affordability challenges potential partners are being asked to ramp up and coordinate efforts to enroll households in the American Connectivity Program (ACP) established by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). That program offers a $30 monthly subsidy to income-qualifying households to pay for a home broadband subscription and a one-time $100 voucher for the purchase of digital devices.

The city would also like to incent potential partners to work to get households connected to an affordable service with sufficient speeds available.

As such, the City is requesting Proposals that result in a universal free or low-cost broadband service plan as quickly as possible, at least for individuals with ACP-qualifying needs. If using existing infrastructure, the plan should operate at a reliable minimum speed of 100 mbps download / 20 mbps upload; if using new infrastructure, then at 100 mbps symmetrical. Access should ultimately reach every neighborhood and resident in Cleveland. And a plan should be in place for this service to stay affordable over time while keeping pace with increasing consumer bandwidth demands.

Phase II: Fiber Infrastructure for a ‘Smart City’

The goal of Phase II, the RFP says, is to ensure “every home, business, and government building in Cleveland has access to fiber optic infrastructure (and) enables the City (to) widely deploy ‘Smart City’ infrastructure, IoT, and edge solutions.” 

The city cites FCC data that indicates 41 percent of Clevelanders have access to fiber service, which is higher than the national average (although considering that the FCC data is notoriously flawed, it’s likely the percentage of city residents with access to fiber connectivity is actually much lower).

However, whether it's fiber service or other forms of broadband access, there’s no question that Cleveland is staring in the face of a massive digital divide with 44 percent of city households without a wireline broadband connection and 27 percent without access to broadband of any kind.

The RFP calls for proposals that would leverage the city’s existing fiber assets to extend a fiber network – “a prescriptive approach” the city considers to be “the fastest, longest-lasting, and most cost effective Internet infrastructure solution.” Fortunately, the city does have (limited) existing fiber assets. It also has its own municipal utility, Cleveland Public Power (CPP). As noted in the RFP:

The city owns some single-strand last-mile fiber that extends from various privately owned nodes to several forms of security equipment (cameras, ShotSpotter, etc.) across the city. It also owns 22 parks and recreation facilities equipped with limited amounts of fiber, and approximately a mile of downtown fiber assets that connect select city buildings. In addition, the City has right-of-way access to an underground utility conduit on Euclid Avenue, one of Cleveland’s primary downtown commercial thoroughfares.

Also, because the city owns and operates CPP, that means it “owns or has access to an extensive utility and light pole network across approximately two-thirds of the city’s geography, with those poles primarily located on resident tree lawns or berms.”

Citing the success and benefits of Chattanooga’s municipal fiber network, which has brought that city a $2.7 billion return-on-investment, the RFP notes “Cleveland is ripe for a similar investment.”

While the cost of constructing a city-wide fiber network would undoubtedly cost tens of millions more dollars than the $20 million the city is setting aside the get the ball-rolling, the RFP says, “the city anticipates seeking additional funding with the Applicant from IIJA programs, the State of Ohio, philanthropy, and other sources.” And while the RFP does not explicitly call for a full citywide fiber network, officials are not ruling out that possibility while looking to determine how far $20 million will get the city.

It’s still to be determined whether city officials will ultimately land on a full-scale build out of a fiber network or take an approach that targets predominantly non-white low-income neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city where the RFP notes the connectivity challenges are “the most pronounced.”

Whatever the outcome, the RFP says, the city “intends to be a primary or co-equal partner in any final product, development, service, or initiative resulting from an agreement,” though it also notes “the city is interested in all potential partnership models.” That's an indication that unlike Chattanooga – which owns and operates its entire municipal network, including the retail service – Cleveland is more interested in a public-private partnership in which a private provider is responsible for the maintenance, operation, and service to residents and businesses.

With the proposal deadline fast approaching (August 26), the city's timeline estimates the bids will be reviewed and winner(s) selected with a contract ready for city council approval by the end of September or sometime in October.

Philanthropic and Community Support

Meanwhile, as further evidence the city means business, it is also currently looking to hire a Digital Equity and Inclusion Manager to play “a core role in leading and executing the city’s efforts to expand broadband access and adoption.” And as a sign of community support for the city’s plan, that position is being paid for by two local non-profit organizations, the Rocket Community Fund and the Cleveland Foundation.

Fortunately, Cleveland’s efforts to bridge the digital divide in the state’s second most populous city is operating in an environment that enjoys the support of the Governor’s office and the state’s newly created broadband office, BroadbandOhio. And while the city has yet to apply for state grants to help fund its effort to expand broadband access, BroadbandOhio is already awarding grant funds to assist communities across the state, having awarded more than $232 million in grants to 11 Internet service providers as part of the state’s Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program.

And, more recently, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted announced a $650,000 pilot project in the neighboring city of East Cleveland to bring affordable Internet connectivity for up to 2,000 households there.

Header image of Cleveland courtesy of Wikipedia, Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Inline chart of Cleveland poverty rates courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau