“Internet is a basic building block:” Advocates push for accessible broadband amid growing digital divide

The pandemic exacerbated an existing digital divide, widening cracks in equity and prompting the city and county to consider investment in broadband infrastructure and other methods of internet accessibility.

Writing, reporting and photos by Abbey Marshall

Denise McCormick and her three children spend weekdays working and studying from library computers.

It’s not that they don’t have internet access in their North Hill home; it just doesn’t work very well. Between her three teenagers completing virtual school work and being a single working mother studying for a degree online, the family is all too familiar with waiting for screens to load and getting booted from classroom Zoom calls. Upgrading their internet plan would be expensive: McCormick already pays $100 a month.

“The digital divide is definitely real,” McCormick says. “With everything being forced digitally, every city in this country should be organizing better [broadband] infrastructure because COVID is a perfect example of how things can be restricted for people who can’t afford it.”

The pandemic has only exacerbated the digital divide. The widening cracks in equity have prompted the city and county to address accessibility concerns for residents.

A potential path local officials are exploring is a major broadband infrastructure investment that would provide internet as a public utility, which would require at least a $70 million investment and years of construction. Advocates were hopeful to use a portion of the $153 million grant the city received as part of the federal American Rescue Act, but broadband was not included on  Mayor Dan Horrigan’s list of priorities, so questions of affordability still remain.

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A look at broadband access in Akron

Akron is one of seven Ohio cities labeled as “distressed” when it comes to broadband access.

  • Nearly 16% of households in the city do not have access to any broadband, including a phone data plan, according to a 2019 report from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
  • More than 31% of residents do not have access to broadband with cable, Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) or fiber optic, which allow for high-speed access that enables users to send and receive data quickly, stream video with little to no buffering and more.

The report looked at households that were tapped into and using the internet, not just whether it was available.

Unlike in many distressed Ohio counties, primarily located in rural Southeast, it’s not necessarily an access issue; it’s an affordability issue. Ohio has the 13th highest overall cost for utilities — including electric, gas, water, cable and internet — of any other state, according to data compiled in 2018 by move.org, a site that collects information and data related to moving, such as expenses.

Who is excluded from internet access?

In addition to many residents now working from home, Akron Public School students spent nearly an entire school year instructing students virtually. While the district provided and paid for more than 1,400 hotspots and 50 Spectrum accounts for students in need of internet access, that is not a long term solution for keeping students digitally connected.

On April 1, Akron City Council and the Akron Public Schools Board of Education, met to address the internet accessibility crisis facing students.

“We realized more than ever how important technology really is and how maybe not prepared we really were for this pandemic that hit,” Margo Sommerville, city council president, said at the April 1 meeting. “Children were doing remote learning in their home. The absence of WiFi and technology posed a lot of issues.”

Though many students returned to classrooms in March, questions have been raised about how lack of internet access at home affects students’ ability to complete their homework.

“If kids need to do homework in the evenings and they’re leaning on the internet only at the library, it sets them up for failure,” McCormick, the North Hill mother of three, says. “That’s just the bottom line.”

The problem goes beyond inequity in education, as digital access is necessary in many professions and facets of life.

When 29-year-old Ajante Buchanan became homeless, he turned to the public library for internet access. With a two-hour limitation, he maxes out his time each day searching for jobs and housing options.

“It can go fast, especially when I’m trying to look for a job or if I have to deal with a time-sensitive matter,” he says.

The difficulty of not having a phone or regular internet connection goes beyond reliance on public facilities. Everything is reliant on the internet, he says, from banking to telehealth visits, which have made “times especially troubling” during the pandemic, when a lot of in-person locations have closed and shifted services online.

“It’s just becoming more and more important to have, and it’s almost a necessity,” Buchanan says. “It’s hard to function in society without it. Everything is communicated online.”

How broadband could function as a public utility with a $70 million infrastructure update

At the April 1 joint meeting, Deputy Mayor of Integrated Development James Hardy recommended a partnership with the county and FairlawnGig on a feasibility study to explore the potential cost and benefit of building out a municipal utility. 

If the city and county decided to pursue that route, FairlawnGig, a municipal utility internet service provider in Fairlawn, would install a fiber optic connection under city roads to provide a more accessible, affordable connection.

What is broadband and how does it work?

  • Broadband is a way of transporting data, like a video call or movie, from one place to another. Sometimes that is through optic fiber or phone lines. 
  • Optic fiber, which is a thin, flexible, transparent fiber that transmits the data, is laid underground by an internet provider and must connect up to a residence directly for internet hook-up. It is one of the most efficient and fastest ways of transmitting data and the one the city plans on using if they complete the project with FairlawnGig.

In Akron, there are two main options when it comes to internet providers: AT&T or Spectrum. Both have existing wired broadband throughout the city to provide service. Spectrum and AT&T plans start at $50 and $35, respectively, for the first year then increase after 12 months. Both offer a low-income assist for qualified households.

The project would make the internet similar to water and sewage utility services, both of which are city provided and managed. Both Fairlawn and Hudson completed similar broadband projects.

That means creating more infrastructure to make broadband more accessible to all Akronites.  Rather than relying on private internet providers’ broadband and fiber already laid inground, the city, partnered with FairlawnGig, would tear up many Akron roads to install new fiber that connects to each household.

That’s why the price tag is estimated to be at least $70 million, which is about 20% of the capital budget for an entire year, and the timeline would stretch several years.

Once complete, however, every Akron resident could tap into a locally sourced, affordable internet connection. Plans for FairlawnGig will be cheaper than private internet providers, though the city still has to negotiate the details.

“With water and sewer, the city’s investment is enormous,” said Ward 8 councilperson Shammas Malik on April 1. “Internet is a basic building block in society and we are all spending our time on how to approach our systems with equity. Owning the system and being able to provide at a very discounted rate to our entire community might pay huge dividends.”

Where would the money come from?

Akron received a $153 million grant from the federal American Rescue Act, which will be dispersed in two rounds and must be used by the end of 2024. It is the most significant amount of money the city has ever received in its history.

While there was talk of using some of those funds during the April 1 meeting, Mayor Dan Horrigan released a list of priority areas for the unprecedented stimulus — which did not include broadband.

“Both the schools and city have no shortage of pressing needs, so when you start to put in perspective the cost involved of building out a low-cost, affordable, municipal broadband alternative, we need to look through all these different priorities as well,” Hardy says. “Broadband is a huge equity issue, but getting broadband does not solve inequity. It’s one piece of a larger pie we need to be assessing.”

Because of broadband infrastructure’s omission from that list of priorities, Hardy says it’s “not probable” the city could afford to spend that kind of money on its own, especially because the original intent was to lift a cost burden from taxpayers.

He says the city is looking to the county for leadership on the idea of a potential multi-jurisdictional partnership between communities on affordable broadband internet. He also recommended at the April 1 meeting that the city or county consider putting out a request for bids for an agency to create a feasibility study for the project.

If not infrastructure, what other options exist?

They are also considering alternatives, such as subsidizing costs for low-income households and broadcasting WiFi signals from buildings in the city.

“But in terms of broadband infrastructure, we are beholden to telecommunications companies partnering with us with no leverage on our side, or building it out ourselves,” Hardy says. 

City officials are holding out hope for passage of the massive federal infrastructure bill President Joe Biden is shepherding through Congress, which includes plans and funding for significant broadband overhaul.

In addition, Ohio legislators are considering passage of bipartisan House Bill 2, the piece of legislation that describes Akron as a “distressed city.” If passed by the Ohio Senate, $210 million in state grants would be dispersed to underserved and distressed communities for high-speed internet. Gov. Mike DeWine has been vocal about investing in broadband. 

In the meantime, the city continues to explore other means of providing accessible or free internet sites for residents. FairlawnGig set up a fiber ring around Downtown Akron using county CARES Act funding as a foundational piece for a potential public utility, and the city is also installing free high-speed WiFi via FairlawnGig at every community center.

“It’s not ideal, but we are making small incremental progress,” Hardy says. “That pace is almost completely due to the price tag to build out the fiber in every street throughout the city. Certainly it’s doable, but the reason we haven’t completely pulled the trigger with its significant cost.”

That doesn’t mean it is any less urgent to mothers like McCormick, whose home internet isn’t getting any faster or more affordable.

“If [the city] wants to do something for us taxpayers and parents that’s trying to motivate our children to be inspired to learn, they need to get us on a better, more affordable broadband network,” McCormick says. “Spectrum is making a killing and the internet quality isn’t there for us.”

How to secure low-cost internet if you are in need

  • If you have or are a student within Akron Public Schools, contact the district at 330-761-1661. APS has limited hotspots to lend to families based on need. 
  • Spectrum offers a low-income assist for households that qualify for the following programs: National School Lunch Program (NSLP), Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of NSLP or Supplemental Security Income (for applications over 65). Plans for high speed internet include a free modem, no data caps or contracts and in-home WiFi at $5 a month. You must fill out an online applicaiton at www.spectrum.net/support/forms/spectrum_internet_assist. You can use the public library or community centers to complete that form.
  • AT&T offers an affordable internet plan for low-income households that includes $10 a month high speed internet, free installation and in-home WiFi without an annual contract or deposit. Households must qualify based on income or participation in programs like NSLP, Head Start or Supplemental Nutritional Access Program (SNAP). Visit www.att.com/internet/access to learn more and see if you qualify.
  • All library branches have free WiFi and computers for the public to use. Here is an interactive map of all the places you can access free WiFi in and around Akron. 

Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at abbey@thedevilstrip.com.

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