Empowering Community in Cleveland, with DigitalC - Episode 499 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

This week on the show, Christopher is joined by Angela Thi Bennett, Director of Advocacy & Impact at DigitalC, a community-based Cleveland nonprofit which operates a fixed wireless network in the city's unserved and underserved neighborhoods. Before she leaves to become the first Digital Equity Director for National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), Angela sits down with Christopher to talk about everything the organization does to advance digital equity goals in the city, driven by an agenda that focuses on healthcare, education, and economic growth. She shares how the nonprofit developed a sustainable model to delivery reliable, fast Internet access for $18/month, how success comes from listening intentionally and regularly to what community members need and want, and what true empowerment means in the face of shifting agendas at the state and national level.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below. 

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Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


Angela Thi Bennett (00:07):

How are we intentionally helping families upscale or achieve sustainable wages so that they can afford to pay for their internet service and not be reliant on the subsidies? If we're not doing that and the subsidies go away, our families are right back in that situation. Again,

Christopher Mitchell (00:29):

Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota, and today I'm speaking with Angela Thi Bennett, the director of advocacy and impact at Digital C. Welcome to the show.

Angela Thi Bennett (00:48):

Thank you. Thank you. Thanks for having me. Chris.

Christopher Mitchell (00:51):

I feel like I was super fortunate to, to get on your schedule. we, we we scheduled this right before it became public that you would be the new digital equity director, the first ever digital equity director at N T I A in the federal government. So congratulations on that.

Angela Thi Bennett (01:08):

Thank you. Thank you.

Christopher Mitchell (01:10):

I would love to grill you about what you're gonna be doing there, and I think people would be interested, but we're not gonna do that because there's so much I want to talk about in Cleveland that you've already done. So we'll focus there. why don't we start by just telling us a little bit about digital C

Angela Thi Bennett (01:24):

well, digital c we are a nonprofit community-based wireless internet service provider. here in the city of Cleveland's. Not only do we, you know, deliver, you know, internet services, you know, directly to the home through our fixed, you know, wireless technologies. We actually deliver more. We call ourselves the wisp with the purpose because we recognize that it's not enough to just connect families to internet. But how do we then connect them to the tools and the resources that they need to improve their outcomes? And three key areas for us, health, education, and economic, you know, wellbeing.

Christopher Mitchell (02:09):

And you came about as kind of the latest in a series of, of interesting transitions. I think. there was one Cleveland turned into one community, and then that had assets all over northern, northeast Ohio. when that was transitioned to a private company there was kind of a, this pot of money set aside to enable you all to do your mission right? The, I know that's the, the fast version of it, but <laugh>, <laugh>,

Angela Thi Bennett (02:35):

You got it, Chris. So it not only was there, you know, funding, but there was also access to fiber. And so through that transaction, digital c received access to fiber for five years. And, you know, what the board decided was, you know, what do we do with this? You know, how can we, you know, truly have an impact, you know, in our communities? And so they decided, let's leverage the assets, you know, the access to the fiber, let's leverage the funding that we have. and let's try to connect Cleveland.

Christopher Mitchell (03:12):

And I think, if I remember correctly, you started with some public housing buildings, but then you got ambitious to I think tackle the, the ultimate challenge in my mind which is single family homes in some areas. so tell me how that's going.

Angela Thi Bennett (03:28):

I would say all of it is a challenge, <laugh>. Sure, I can appreciate that. So, you know, we started with, prior to 2019, we had this kind of beta project where we connected several public housing units and they were receiving it for free, but we all know that free is not sustainable. And, you know, as we, you know, moved to develop this model, it was, you know, Ari, you know, trying to arrive at what would be deemed affordable. And so through our work in the neighborhoods, through kitchen table conversations, you know, where we went into the community and hosted these mini sessions really finding out, you know, what are, you know, residents dreams and, and goals for their community, and how can technology, you know, be utilized and what do they think they think is affordable? You know, we arrive at our $18 a month plus taxes and fees, which is less than 20.

Christopher Mitchell (04:22):

I, I think that's, it's a really interesting question cuz I hear from so many people, what is affordable? So you didn't just invent that number, you know, and around a discussion of people who are working for digital. C you went out and, and, and kind of engaged the community to find that number for you.

Angela Thi Bennett (04:35):

Absolutely. You know, all of our work is really based in community because this is, you know, it's about serving and, you know, truly, you know, having an impact. So you know, once we kind of arrived at that, we said, free of course isn't affordable. We came upon that, that number. and actually Cuyahoga County gave us our first access to the rooftops so that we can begin connecting, you know, single family households. But what we quickly found out was that our families need help. You know, they need help not only, you know, with devices, they also need help on how to meaningfully use the internet to help them. So we started YouTube, our young folks, you know, during the pandemic when the pandemic hit and everyone was sent home, we, you know, brought in a team of young college students who lived in the neighborhoods.


And in addition to kind of doing print, because people were unconnected, we literally walked to the na the neighborhoods and taped flyers with covid resources, food resources, you know, just information to help our community. And we were building trust, building credibility building relationships in the community through that. And then we started, you know having radio shows and bringing in resources to help families. You know, we were dispatching people to the homes with the protections. But just really trying to hear from the, the residents, which we call our neighbors. So we don't call them our customers, these are our neighbors mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And just really hearing from like, what do you need? You know, how can we, you know, be helpful. And then now we have, you know, formally created what we call empowerment.

Christopher Mitchell (06:19):

When you're charging $18 a month, if a family hits a hard stretch I think I've seen that. You don't cut 'em off though.

Angela Thi Bennett (06:25):

No, we don't. So $18 a month is affordable, but even at that, we said before all of these federal dollars came in for subsidies. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, we recognize that $20 a month is not affordable to all. And so we partnered with banks and, you know, healthcare institutions to subsidize even that, where it was half off. And then oftentimes free. And then we have an emergency fund so that if any family has a hardship, we will not disconnect families because they cannot afford it. And so we, you know, we're able to utilize those funds to help ensure that our families remain connected.

Christopher Mitchell (07:03):

And are you now able to tap into a CCP for a lot of those families? The Affordable Connectivity program,

Angela Thi Bennett (07:09):

ACP is great as you know, a subsidy now. and we are connecting families. so we set up shop inside buildings and we actually help them. I mean, we're not saying, Hey, here's, here's this number, here's this website, call this number. But we're actually out in the communities with our digital clinics and helping families, you know, upload their information and getting the getting what they need. So, so we never have ever just stopped at here it is, figure it out, but here's the information. How can we, you know, help you?

Christopher Mitchell (07:42):

So that would include, so maybe if you're out in the, in the neighborhood, you're talking to the neighbors and you find out that they're in an area that you don't serve, then you can help them sign up for that a provider there. but then if they are in areas that you do serve, you can sign them up for your own services. Right?

Angela Thi Bennett (07:56):

Absolutely. And we've always really taken that approach. So if we ever, you know, run into an area where we can't, you know, connect a family, you know, I kind of pick up the phone and, and call some of the other providers and say, Hey, we have a family that needs to get connected and we can't serve. Can you guys, you know, serve them? But I will say, what a c p, it's a great subsidy, you know, all subsidies are are temporary <laugh>.

Christopher Mitchell (08:20):

Right. Even if they're called permanent <laugh>.

Angela Thi Bennett (08:23):

Right? Right. They're, they're not permanent. And so that's why empowerment is so important because we know that median household income is a very strong predictor of digital adoption. And so our real focus is we can utilize the subsidy for now, but how are we intentionally helping families upscale or achieve sustainable wages so that they can afford <laugh>, that's another right. So that they can afford to pay for their internet service and not be reliant on the subsidies. Because the reality is this, if we're not doing that and the subsidies go away, our families are right back in that situation again.

Christopher Mitchell (09:08):

Yes. And perhaps even worse off now for having new habits that can't be supported. you know, in terms of absolutely not having to wait in line to do some programs and things like that. when it comes to the people who are doing the work, you know, there's different models. some people use volunteer labor like NYC mesh. some people use digital steward model, which NYC mesh is starting to do as well, but where the, where people from the community learn the skills and build the network and get paid for it. And other people use professional you know technologists to build the network. What does empower Clay do? Which is the, the ISP part of digital c Like the people that go out to install the equipment and do the work and stuff like that. Are they employees of Well,

Angela Thi Bennett (09:49):

We do a combination. So <laugh>, so you know, when we have in-house tech staff, you know, who can, you know, go out and do the installations, but then we also contract locally for, you know, the household installations, you know, as well. And actually the contractors, the majority of the contractors that we work with are, you know, local businesses, minority owned businesses here in Cleveland.

Christopher Mitchell (10:13):

Excellent. and so the, the other thing I wanted to ask you about with regard to home service was, I, I remember at a time in which it feels like a lot more places are still not enough places that are really tackling public housing in the way that you have. but it seemed like you were already moving on to do millimeter wave interesting things to try to connect single family homes. how, how has that gone specifically? Because, you know, well, you can tell me if I'm wrong, but but do it gently. I've been telling people for a while that, you know, while connecting public housing isn't easy connecting single family homes in neighborhoods where you have mixed incomes is just the hardest thing to do.

Angela Thi Bennett (10:52):

It's challenging with a single family. It's really getting access to assets, you know and, you know, I handle, you know, the site acquisitions here, you know, for digital c and so with the millimeter wave, we need access to light poles, <laugh>, mm-hmm. <affirmative> to be able, you know, to get under the canopy, you know?

Christopher Mitchell (11:12):

And are those owned by the city or by the electric utility?

Angela Thi Bennett (11:15):

It's a combination. Okay. Some light poles are owned by the city and then others by, you know, the larger, you know, electrical providers. And you know, what we're trying to really, where we've been fortunate and able to continue to deliver at the rate that, you know, we do is that building owners have donated it. They're rooftops. So that's a model that where it's all in mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you hear Cleveland, you know what our Cavaliers were all in. But Cleveland really has been all in to trying to close this digital divide. And so from our public housing partners to even private building owners, they have all essentially donated their rooftops to enable us to, you know, connect the families. And so, you know, when it comes to, you know, some of those assets, it's helping to be innovative as to, you know, how they can make them available at low or no cost so that we can, you know, truly serve the residents.

Christopher Mitchell (12:16):

I'm sure it's hard to say that just donate the rooftop as though it's just like a little handshake. you have full-blown legal contracts. It's a big deal to make sure that you have everything nailed down for a long period of time to be able to go up there and then not nail things down. Right. <laugh>.

Angela Thi Bennett (12:31):

Yeah, <laugh>, exactly. So we do, you know, we're fortunate that our partners have provided long-term agreements, you know, with us, but we also from our end ensure that, you know, we perform the structural analysis and you know, have the engineering drawings and also the insurance, you know, adding them as additional named insureds on our policies because while they are donating, we also want to ensure to them that we are protecting and doing what, you know, is necessary to protect their interests.

Christopher Mitchell (13:03):

Yeah. And I just I, I made the, the comment about not nailing down, I don't remember if it was you or someone else I was talking to about rooftops and they were like, you never ever penetrate the rooftop <laugh>.

Angela Thi Bennett (13:12):

Absolutely. You know, and none of the assurance that our building owners need, because, you know, you penetrate it and then you compromise their, you know, the guarantee the, the warranty on the roof mm-hmm. <affirmative>. and you can cause, you know, not only a, a warranty issue, but damage. And so we really, really want to be respectful, you know, of the property's owned by our partners.

Christopher Mitchell (13:33):

So Cleveland had at one point been ranked one of the worst connected cities by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. I know that there's some disagreement you know, about how those rankings are done always, but nonetheless, it had some real challenges. it seems like it's been a real success story though since then with the work that you've done. you know, the, the Cleveland Foundation seems like it's one of the best community foundations of really tackling this issue. how did all that come to be?

Angela Thi Bennett (14:00):

We're this small, big city <laugh> and it's really through collaborations. It's people coming out of their silos and coming together to solve problems to help advance the city forward and really leveraging all of the assets. You know, one organization can't do it all. And so it's collaboration. You know, I'll, I'll give you an example. We were just on a call yesterday and it was a combination of us and our Ohio means jobs, our state agency that helps pay for training. And we had the NAACP and we had a minority contractor organization and we're like, Hey, how can we all work together to start, you know, to help connect residents to training, right? Well, and future plans to, let's first assess them to make sure their interests aligned, then get them placed in the training and then into career opportunities in this broadband infrastructure, you know, so that they can economically participate in all of this billions of dollars of funding that's coming down. and then also looking, so that's getting them into the trades and then also looking at, you know, smaller contractors, independent contractors in the trades, and how do we then provide them with technical assistance so that they can grow their business as dollars, you know, are funded through. So really trying to be intentional to ensure that the local communities and the people who live in them are participating in this broadband growth.

Christopher Mitchell (15:44):

And has, have you had enough experience to know that what you're doing is working? I can imagine that that there can be a lot of hiccups and stop starts along that path.

Angela Thi Bennett (15:54):

I can just tell you what digital, see with our college students that, you know, we hired some of 'em went back to school, some of 'em went back to school. And our working remote, you know, in our customer experience. So our young folks came in and helped build out our sales, our customer experience, our community engagement, our field operations, they young people, right? The talent that's in our communities, and they're from the neighborhoods that we serve. Well, we have them hired full-time, you know, so we have them, you know, who are actually continuing to work here in customer experience. And, and one of them I just found out, just bought a house. So within this model, within digital c I see it working. I see that when, you know, organizations are very thoughtful and intentional in their recruitment and their support and their practices, how you can grow and empower community.

Christopher Mitchell (16:52):

Do you have someone who just focuses on helping them to like, learn things? cuz I feel like, you know, whenever we're hiring younger folks, I'm always amazed at how good they are at some things and how they've never been exposed to other things. And I'm like, oh, wow, how are we gonna bring this person up to speed on this other thing that they haven't done before?

Angela Thi Bennett (17:09):

It's important to have someone that is dedicated, or one of their roles is to support mm-hmm. <affirmative>, because there are questions. I mean, just, you know, even as adults when you, you know, come onto a new, new job, <laugh>, you know, you have all these different questions and transitions and you know, what are protocols both spoken and unspoken or written and unwritten, you know, protocols

Christopher Mitchell (17:30):

Might be front of mine for you right now, <laugh>.

Angela Thi Bennett (17:33):

Exactly. and so it's important to have someone there who the, the young people can turn to with questions or who's there to pull coattails and say, Hey, and they know that that person truly cares. So their advice and constructive criticism is coming from a place where they truly want the best for that young person and and really have, you know, what I call a restorative justice, you know, type of mindset so that you, you help people learn and grow from, you know, their mistakes.

Christopher Mitchell (18:10):

So one last question, and this is, it's a little bit of a doozy, so I don't want you to, I don't want you to feel like I'm asking you to criticize other cities. I feel like when I look at digital c I see a willingness to try new things that I don't always see from other cities, whether it's non-profit organizations or municipal employees, I feel like they're afraid of trying new things. you know, do you have advice for just people being more entrepreneurial and taking a little bit more risks and trying to solve this problem rather than studying it to death?

Angela Thi Bennett (18:41):

In our team, we used the mantra that one of my young people actually coined years ago. Growth is the outcome. I think it's about mindset, and I think it's about creating a safe space for people to fail forward. I mean, you know, you hear the fail forward, but it's truly that. And, and being able to say, we learn from that. What do we learn? How do we move forward? And being supportive of that and, and being in a position. And I would challenge leaders to be in a position where, or having a mindset where you're serving your team if you are truly there and helping them grow to become the best version of themselves. And that's how you build a successful team and, and take risk sitting on the sideline, studying it to death while people in the community are suffering. And that's what we do on the pandemic hit. We said, we're gonna go out here and we're gonna fight the fight and push through and do whatever it takes to, you know, help you know our neighbors.

Christopher Mitchell (19:42):

Excellent. Thank you so much for your time today. And I just, I wish you the, the best of luck. I know that there's gonna be so much to do, but I'm really excited that they're gonna get someone that has the experience that you have to do this work.

Angela Thi Bennett (19:54):

Thank you. Thank you, Chris

Ry (19:56):

<laugh>. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muni networks.org/broadbandbits. Email us@podcastmuninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handles at communitynets, follow muni networks.org. Stories on Twitter, the handles at muni networks. Subscribe to this and other podcasts from I L S R, including building Local Power, local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter@ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate your support in any amount. Keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Hughes B for the song, warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.