Cuyahoga County proposal could expand internet access

CUYAHOGA COUNTY, Ohio — A recent proposal aims to turn one of the least connected communities in the country into one of the most connected. In Cuyahoga County, close to 18% of households lack internet access. The statistic climbs to 40% when looking at families with an annual income of less than $20,000.

“In the rural areas, you find that in many places they don’t have physical access. Here that’s less of a problem, although it’s still a problem, but here it’s more of a class issue,” said Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish.

Budish explained the county was looking at ways to fix connectivity issues prior to the pandemic. The health crisis both highlighted the need for better broadband access and funneled federal funds into the community to make it possible.

“If not for the Rescue Plan dollars, we would have trouble coming up with those funds. So the timing is good because we did receive some funds from the federal government that we can use for this purpose,” Budish said.

This week, the Cuyahoga County Council’s Community Development Committee heard a presentation about a nearly $20 million proposal to expand broadband access to 85% of the county’s least connected areas.

It would leverage money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to contract with nonprofit PCs for People to build a fixed wireless network to support 20,000 suburban households. A wired approach to multi-family units would connect an additional 5,000 households.

“We will be one of the first, certainly in Ohio and maybe in the country, to say that we’ve got everyone covered,” said Budish.

PCs for People promises internet speeds exceeding 100 mbps with its service for $15 per month. Households with income 200% below the poverty level may also qualify for a federal subsidy to cover the monthly cost.

The organization, which offers broadband access and refurbished corporate computers for little to no cost, said its research shows a household income can climb by 15% in the first year with internet and computer access.

“All of the economic and social impact of not being able to do a resume at home, having to do your homework at the library, having to do telehealth at the library or on a phone outside… all those barriers compound and feed into poverty issues,” explained Bryan Mauk, the Chief Innovation Officer at PCs for People.

Proponents of expanded broadband have called it an economic development issue. Mauk also said it’s a quality of life issue.

“We learn online, we work online and also we live online,” he said. “We watch movies, we have Facebook, we connect with people and it helps to empower all aspects of that.”

Broadband Coverage Proposal in Cuyahoga County

Cuyahoga County

A map shows the phases for Cuyahoga County’s proposed broadband expansion.

The broadband expansion would roll out in three phases over two years. In the first six months, census tracts near Bedford, Brooklyn, East Cleveland, Parma, and Warrensville Heights would begin upgrades.

The second phase, happening in the 12 months after the rollout begins, would include Euclid, Garfield Heights, Lakewood, and Maple Heights.

A county map shows the final phase, scheduled to wrap up within 24 months, would include Bedford Heights, Cleveland Heights, Highland Mills, Mayfield Heights, North Randall, Parma Heights, Richmond Heights, and South Euclid.

On Monday, Community Development Committee members unanimously voted to bring the measure back to the full Cuyahoga County Council. The Council is scheduled to hear the proposal two more times and vote on it on June 7.

Cleveland is also pursuing a similar investment in broadband access in the county’s urban core.

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