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The Unacceptable Persistence of the Digital Divide

Millions of Americans lack broadband access and computer skills. Can President Trump bring them into the digital economy?
December 16, 2016

Most homes in the United States have Internet service, but they don’t in the poor parts of Cleveland and nearby suburbs. A survey in 2012 showed that 58 percent of the area’s households with incomes under $20,000 had neither home broadband nor mobile Internet access, often because of the cost. Another 10 percent had a mobile phone but no home broadband. Until recently, one such household was a ground-floor two-­bedroom apartment in a public housing project called Outhwaite Homes, where a circumspect 13-year-old girl named Ma’Niyah Larry lives with her mother, Marcella.

Ma’Niyah has a special-education plan for math; to help her, she’s been assigned problems to do online through Khan Academy. But her mother says she cannot afford broadband from Time Warner Cable, which would begin at around $50 a month, even for an entry-level offering, plus modem and taxes (and the price would rise significantly after the 12-month teaser rate expired). The family has a smartphone, but it’s harder for Ma’Niyah to use the small screen, and Marcella watches her data caps closely; just a few hours of Khan Academy videos would blow past monthly limits. Fast Internet access is available in a library a few blocks away, but “it’s so bad down here that it’s not really safe to walk outside,” Marcella Larry says. Ma’Niyah’s bedroom, its wall decorated with a feathery dream-catcher, faces a grassy courtyard where gang-related gunfire rang out on two nights last summer, causing Ma’Niyah to flee to the relative safety of the living room.

There is a patchwork of attempts to deal with this problem. The region’s public housing agency, the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, recently gave Ma’Niyah a tablet and a wireless hotspot in a trial program to help close the “homework gap” that’s opened up between kids who have Internet-­connected computers at home and those who don’t. And Marcella Larry qualifies for a discount program AT&T offers to families that receive food subsidies: DSL service—far slower than what the government defines as broadband—over phone lines for $5 to $10 a month. But it’s hardly a long-term solution. AT&T agreed to offer the package for four years as part of its effort to win regulatory approval for its acquisition of DirectTV.

Marcella and Ma’Niyah are among the millions of people on the wrong side of America’s persistent digital divide. A survey by Pew Research shows that fully one-third of American adults do not subscribe to any Internet access faster than dial-up at their home at a time when many basic tasks—finding job listings, doing homework, obtaining social services, and even performing many jobs—require being online. Even many people who are willing to pay for service can’t get it. Thirty-four million Americans have no access at all to broadband as the U.S. Federal Communications Commission defines it: a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of three megabits per second. These speeds are what FCC chairman Tom Wheeler calls “table stakes for 21st-century communications.”

People without broadband are not necessarily entirely offline: like Marcella Larry, some of them rely on smartphones. But because of small screens and data caps, phones are not an adequate substitute for home broadband. Its absence in some communities is a growing problem at a time when the jobs of the future will be increasingly digital: the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 500,000 information technology jobs will be created in the next few years. Already, one in 20 American adults is deriving some income from online “gig” employment (not including ride- or home-sharing services), according to joint studies by Microsoft Research and the Pew Research Center. Such opportunities are only expected to grow—for people who have broadband access.

In Cleveland, which along with Detroit ranks among the worst-connected cities in the nation, help is on the way for some residents. Housing projects like the one where Marcella and Ma’Niyah Larry live are about to benefit from an ambitious project to provide the fastest service in the city using a combination of fiber-optic networks and a new breed of wireless connection. But no comprehensive solution is in evidence for these cities—or the nation as a whole. Despite having invented the Internet’s protocols, the United States lags far behind much of the industrialized world in available broadband speeds and affordability of fast services—a problem that is particularly acute in inner cities and rural areas. In past eras, great national efforts led to universal electricity and telephone service. Now the nation could use an ambitious plan to improve service, drive down costs, and expand access to children like Ma’Niyah and everyone else who deserves it.

Opening doors

Of course, computers and broadband by themselves don’t magically lead to college degrees and better jobs. After all, much of what people do with Internet access once they get it is hardly productive. But some of them may not be getting the training they need to make effective use of software and online services. And there are many correlations between broadband access and income levels or success in finding employment. As the White House Council of Economic Advisers says, “The digital divide is likely both a cause and a consequence of other demographic disparities.”

When people do get broadband and computer training, their lives can change in remarkable ways. Take Monica Moore. She’s a single mother who lived in a decaying neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland and spent more than 20 years working as a file clerk at the Cleveland Clinic. Then three years ago came ominous news. “At work, they said everything was going to electronic medical records and they were going to outsource my job,” Moore, now 47, recalls. “Oh my gosh, my job.”

Moore had few computer skills and rarely used the Internet. The high cost of service from Time Warner Cable kept her offline. But faced with the prospect of losing her job, she steeled herself and entered a storefront training center called the Ashbury Community Center. She started learning software like Office and Excel, and wound up taking online classes through the University of Phoenix. She spent evening after evening doing that work until, in early 2016, she collected a bachelor’s degree in finance. She was one of more than 6,000 people who have received computer training over the past five years thanks to the Ashbury Center and its partners in a nonprofit collaborative called Connect Your Community.

Today, she’s still at the Cleveland Clinic—only she’s got a new job that pays $20,000 more than her old one, editing and uploading digital reports in the hospital’s bustling cardiac catheterization lab. “I was stuck 20 years in the same job due to the fact I didn’t have the means, the technology,” Moore says. “This opened so many doors for me, and I’m just so thankful.” While finishing her degree, she recognized the value of getting Internet access at home. She decided it was worth $154 a month for a cable deal that includes high-speed access in her new home in the suburb of South Euclid.

Fast and cheap

To solve the access problem for more low-income people, Cleveland needs to focus on public or subsidized housing, where 50,000 of the city’s 375,000 inhabitants live. I took a trip to the 14th-story roof of a public housing project named Cedar Estates with Lev Gonick, CEO of a local nonprofit called DigitalC. We stepped out into the drizzle and beheld a panoramic view of America’s industrial rise and decline. To the north was Terminal Tower, a symbol of the region’s onetime economic might: the 52-story Art Deco tower was once the second-tallest building in America. To the south, smoke rose from two steel mills that represent the vestiges of a local industry that today employs fewer than 2,000 people, down from Cleveland’s steelmaking peak of 47,000. Also in sight: vacant factories and blocks of near-worthless frame houses.

Gonick pointed to St. Vincent’s Charity Hospital, one kilometer away. A high-speed fiber-optic network passes through St. Vincent’s; built using a 2009 federal stimulus grant, it connects institutions including at least 800 schools, medical facilities, and government buildings in greater Cleveland. Now the plan is to extend the network to residents in the housing projects. Because it would cost $350,000 to run fiber from St. Vincent’s to Cedar Estates and several nearby buildings, DigitalC will instead close that gap with a wireless technology costing one-tenth as much to install: a millimeter-wave transmission system from a company called Siklu. The new service will be able to deliver one-gigabit-per-second connections to the building, and a bank of servers in Cedar Estates’ basement telephone room will use the existing copper telephone network to provide broadband service to all 163 apartments.

The goal: to provide the fastest and cheapest service in the city, completely removing the cost barrier that poor residents now face. Gonick believes the whole project is so cheap to build that when you throw in an FCC subsidy (called “lifeline”) of $9.25 per month, all tenants in the housing project will easily be able to afford broadband.

While delivering fast, cheap service is an end in itself, DigitalC and partners also plan to give all tenants in the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority refurbished computers and training similar to what’s offered at Ashbury. The tenants will be directed to online workforce training schools such as Career Online High School, too. At the same time, the government of Cuyahoga County is working to put more services online, including workforce training, benefits enrollment, and potentially telemedicine appointments, says Scot Rourke, chief transformation officer for the county. “We want to do more than manage poverty,” he says. “If we have broadband, we can do more kinds of education and training. We’ve got to get people into jobs that will give them the wages to get out of poverty.”

Paths to such jobs exist for those who seek them. One of the new businesses within Terminal Tower is ­WeCanCodeIt, a 12-week software engineering boot camp for people with little experience in technology. The program aims to equip them for jobs like building websites. One student is Melissa Hughes, 40, who left her job as an HIV-testing counselor in Philadelphia and is now unemployed in Cleveland. “In my previous field there was not stability,” she says. “Adding coding skills will give me more opportunity.”

New efforts to introduce kids to coding are taking root as well. At a recent “hip-hop coding” seminar organized by several academic institutions in a downtown office space, teachers and librarians photographed themselves doing break-dance moves and then used Scratch, the popular programming language and online community developed at MIT, to design multimedia animations of their antics. Maria Trivisonno, a librarian in the Cleveland suburb of Warrensville Heights, explained the audience she had in mind: the kids who pour into the library after school, looking for things to do. “We want to teach kids how to create things online, not only how to find information,” she said between dance moves. “If you can start kids young thinking about how to code, it will help them as they get older.”

Don’t be scared

While Gonick’s project might provide a model for cheap broadband in public housing and for educational efforts that might help people put it to good use, there’s a bigger problem to crack: how can we get more and cheaper digital infrastructure everywhere else in the country? The key is to stimulate competition. For example, after Google began offering broadband on fiber-optic lines in the Kansas City area in 2012, existing providers increased the speed of their services by 86 percent over what it had been a year prior—the largest increase in the country at the time, according to Akamai Technologies.

But Cleveland has no such luck. It has only two companies providing service—Time Warner Cable and AT&T—and the latter doesn’t compete very strongly. AT&T doesn’t offer most of the city anything close to what the FCC considers broadband, and some streets can still only get dial-up service from the company.

The situation is perhaps worse in rural areas. Drive an hour east of Cleveland and you reach the community of Andover, flanking the Pennsylvania border. Much of the region has only slow DSL from CenturyLink. “They claim it’s ‘high speed,’ but downloading things literally takes minutes,” says Cindy Schwenk, a retiree who works part time at the Andover Public Library. When she’s there, she can use Wi-Fi to download things on her smartphone in just seconds because the building, unlike residences in the area, has a fast connection from a state library consortium. People sometimes sit in their cars outside the building after hours to get online.

The Andover area relies economically on part-time residents who vacation at nearby Pymatuning Lake. But other areas without such draws may get left behind in an increasingly digital economy.

How can we jump-start competition in these places? One model is emerging: let local governments find partners to build out the basic fiber-optic infrastructure, or at least the empty conduit that can carry fiber underground, and then let service providers compete for customers over such networks (or pull fiber through the conduit, as the case may be). That’s what a few cities are doing, including the aerospace mecca of Huntsville, Alabama. In this case, what’s going on in Huntsville isn’t rocket science. The city is building the basic fiber infrastructure, known as “dark fiber”; Google will “light” the fiber and provide the service. In Ammon, Idaho, the city built a fiber network and let private service providers duke it out. Now customers can use a Web interface to switch providers in a few seconds. No need for the company-specific cable or optical networking boxes that are common in homes across the country.

But in most places, efforts to install new networks often crash into decidedly low-tech obstacles. For example, utility poles. These are almost always owned by an electric company or telephone company, and the latter has an interest in making it slow and costly for competitors to add new fiber to the poles. The FCC has streamlined the rules for how companies attach to poles, but under federal law the rules benefit only ISPs, telephone companies, and cable companies. If the entity trying to install fiber happens to be, say, a county redevelopment agency in a rural area, FCC regulations don’t apply, and pole owners are freer to make the process lengthy and difficult, even if the agency has been told by the state or local government that it may use the poles. Cutting red tape to help install fiber and then adopting flexible service models to facilitate competition could “help get away from today’s rigid models of information services,” says Christopher Mitchell, director of the community broadband networks initiative at the Institute of Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit that, among other things, studies broadband. That might finally help end the digital divide across the United States.

Does everyone deserve access to affordable high-speed Internet, just like water, sewers, electricity, and telephone service? In Ma’Niyah Larry’s apartment and at the Ashbury Community Center, where Monica Moore rebooted her career, you can see that the argument could be made. “There is never a shortage of people who want to show up here and learn,” Bill Callahan, director of the Connect Your Community collaborative, remarked as we looked around the community center.

One of those people was Claudette Hughley, a 55-year-old unemployed physical-­therapist assistant and mother of three adult children. She has spent her life offline and needs to find work. She’s now learned how to use e-mail, how to create and edit Word documents, and how to scroll through online job listings. These are all steps toward fully crossing the digital divide.

“I’m just getting more comfortable with doing things like this,” she said. “I want to broaden my mind—and not get scared.”

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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