Why a Dedicated High Speed Broadband Network to Connect the Unconnected is a Game Changer

by Lev Gonick, DigitalC

[Note: CLIC reprints here with permission this important guest blog from Lev Gonick, a member of our Board of Advisors]

Recently, DigitalC launched the Connect the Unconnected program. It has received strong media coverage in the Cleveland PlainDealer, WCPN (NPR)’s Sound of Ideas and in blog postings around the world. In this blog posting, I offer details on the technical design, the solution architecture, and our hopes for America’s first, dedicated gigabit network designed specifically to support the unserved and underserved members of our community.

The Connect the Unconnected network aspires to connect the 50% of Cleveland residents with no wired broadband access.

Why It Matters – The Center for Public Integrity notes that nationwide, families in neighborhoods with median household incomes below $34,800 — the lowest fifth of neighborhoods nationally — are five times more likely not to have access to broadband than households in areas with a median income above $80,700 — the top fifth.

In Cleveland, the average household salary of the 8,802 families living in public housing is $7,572 per year. Nearly a third of those with housing choice vouchers are working poor. Today, Internet access in the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority is measured in the hundreds of residents. Cleveland is the third least connected city in the United States behind Detroit and Brownsville, Texas. Twenty percent of the residents of the Lutheran’s Men’s Shelter, the largest homeless shelter in Ohio, are returning Vets. Without an internet connection, residents can not apply for public housing, a job, or a myriad of other VA, City, and County services. Dr. Adam Perzynski of MetroHealth in Cleveland has recently concluded that controlling for income and education, broadband access is the single most important social determinant of health and wellness. Students in Cleveland’s Metropolitan School District all take a battery of standardized tests online. Seven of ten teachers assign homework online and yet one in three students has no internet access at home. More than 3000 children are in some form of foster care or at risk of timing out support systems provided by the County in Greater Cleveland. Internet access is rare but for those youth in foster care who enroll in public universities so they can gain shelter instead of sleeping on the street or in a car.

This is the other America. More than 47 million Americans without Internet. 47 million Americans with real faces, circumstances, hopes and dreams. Nearly a third of African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans do not have Internet. Digital equity is our 21st century civil rights challenge, neither color blind, independent of class, age, ability, or location independent.

Designing America’s First Dedicated High Speed Network to Connect the UnConnected

There is no silver bullet, no elixir, no one-size fits all solution to connect the unconnected. For the past fifteen years, Cleveland has had an intentional effort to design, build, manage, and operate its own digital infrastructure. I do not mean the City of Cleveland. DigitalC is a non-profit spin-off of OneCommunity which in turn was a rebranding and scaling of OneCleveland that was launched in 2003 by a group of civically minded technology leaders in Cleveland. Conceived of as a catalyst for leveraging technology for community impact, we spent much of the decade between 2006-2016 designing, constructing, managing, and operating what became a large regional fiber optic network in Northeast Ohio connecting thousands of community anchor institutions. In November 2015, the Board of OneCommunity agreed to accept a $50m investment by MC Partners in order to accelerate and deepen the investments we sought for digital infrastructure through Everstream. As part of that agreement, we retained significant fiber optic capacity (through a legal arrangement known as IRUs) for our continued work in R&D, grants, and mission-related activities.

Our Connect the Unconnected network leverages community anchor institutions that have a presence on the fiber optic backbone.

The first ring pictured is a fully redundant network that was designed by engineers from Siklu, a leading provider of millimeter wave (mmWave) wireless technologies. Many of their more than 45,000 deployed antennas across the United States are the ‘kit’ for WebPass, the company recently acquired by Google Fiber. The backhaul for WebPass is a collection of commercial networks and drains to the Net. Not withstanding, the continuing debate about the future of the modernized lifeline service, there is relatively little leverage for the poor, elderly, rural, and disabled to assure their ability to access the Net. There is even less strategic opportunity to create new entrepreneurial opportunities to be serve and disrupt the substantial unserved and underserved marketplace. All over the global south and beyond, the Net is the platform through which better health, job opportunities, education and training, and other public services and delivered rather than a regulatory afterthought for the incumbent providers. Thus the opportunity to design and launch a dedicated high speed network to fill a demonstrable void and serve the unserved and underserved communities within the Greater Cleveland region.

Anchored to our fiber at the St. Vincent’s Charity Hospital, the antenna arrays for the Connect the Unconnected network in Cleveland have between one and three antennas per building allowing us to extend fiber-like services. All the buildings in the ring are connected at gigabit speeds. The installation team from Agile Networks tethered and calibrated the Siklu mmWave antennas and then connected the wireless antennas from the rooftops to the demarcation points in the respective communication rooms, typically in the basement of each of the residential towers.

DigitalC reached out to Sunnyvale-based Actelis Networks to design a solution to connect the internal wiring plant of the original 1950s copper wiring through their switching technology to the gigabit mmWave antennas via a fiber optic link. The team from Actelis terminated the copper wiring in every single apartment to customer premise equipment and a WiFi switch as well as to their own switches in the demarcation room in the basement of the residential tower. Not withstanding the promise of future technologies like G.fast, the Actelis solution turbo-charged the existing copper wiring to provide residents with a symmetrical service of, on average, 25-30 Mb/s down and up. A service offering I would be very happy with, could I receive it in the suburbs.

Given the well documented challenges of leveraging the pervasive legacy copper plant in cities like Cleveland, this pilot programs provides proof positive that there are technology solutions with relatively modest investment requirements to provide all customers with copper with an FCC-defined and acceptable source of high speed bandwidth, at least for now.

More than 1000 men and women live in homeless shelters in the City of Cleveland. As noted above, 20 percent of the men are returning Vets. Another 60 percent are men re-entering the community from being incarcerated in prisons. These men and women are demonstrably interested in gaining access to the Internet for digital literacy training, keeping in touch with loved ones, seeking workforce training opportunities, digital up-skilling as well as opportunities to look up their healthcare records.

The Lutheran Men’s Shelter, the northerly most node on ring one, brought their connection from the rooftop to their computer lab via a fiber optic connection. A group of 30 men immediately signed up for training. As the first set of computers were connected to the network, a speedtest.net was performed at each station and access at the homeless shelter is now among the fastest Internet connections in the entire City of Cleveland.

Build It And They Will Come — NOT

Over the past 25 years, the experience of community technology centers and their advocates have consistently demonstrated that making Internet access available is a necessary but insufficient condition to onboarding those excluded from the digital economy. Digital isolation can only be overcome by direct and contextually relevant engagement work with those unserved and underserved members of the community.

Connect the Unconnected attempts to be such a wholistic end-to-end program. DigitalC is the catalyst but the entire program is delivered by and through our partnership network.

Every city in the United States has an e-waste stream eco-system. In Cleveland, RET3 has long been a partner supporting the recycling of computers to support the needs of the community. The forward leaning leadership at RET3 not only provides a certified solution for recycling e-waste for corporate and enterprise Cleveland businesses, they have long been engaged in supporting certified workforce development programs. RET3 offers A++ certification, Cisco network certifications, and a host of internship, re-entry, and work study opportunities. RET3’s gently used PC and Apple laptops and mini-towers come with TechSoup certified software licenses.

Another key part of the Connect the Unconnected program is to tie the distribution of computers and software to successful completion of 8 hours of certified training. Delivered by community partners like the Ashbury Seniors Community Computing Center (ASC3). Digital literacy trainers with decades of experience and credibility in the community are critical resources to raise the prospects of success. The empirical evidence bears out the value of this approach. Academic research conducted in 2012 and 2013 affirms that investments in digital literacy training bears strong positive support for employment prospects, greater responsibility for health information, social engagement, and sense of personal self-worth. The data also show that once the once digitally isolated get connected, they overwhelmingly see the value of investing in their own futures and paying for access and prioritize the Internet near the very top of their needs.

Scale – What Comes Next?

I continue to believe that the need for digital equity is as compelling as it is urgent. The danger for failing to act in a timely manner will only lead to dystopian futures with the threads of our social contract fraying further still as the divide continues to widen. There is no doubt that a national framework for connecting the unconnected has always been a desired end-state. Even a strong set of templates for statewide efforts to connect the unconnected would prove valuable in having positive impact on individuals, families and whole communities. There is little to no prospect of a national policy move in this direction. Likewise, there is little prospect for statewide initiatives. American exceptionalism in broadband has meant that the action to connect the 47 million Americans with no Internet is happening in our cities and with our rural utility coops and other more locally defined authorities. We can wait for enlightenment or we can continue to work on connecting the unconnected as a local issue.

The technical architecture of the Cleveland Connect the Unconnected program is scalable and replicable. There are hundreds of community anchor institutions on our network geographically dispersed around the Greater Cleveland geography. That said, there are several technical constraints to such efforts including the laws of physics as they relate to line of sight, a requirement for the mmWave fiber extension project. We are already designing hybrid approaches to solve for these constraints. Our available fiber footprint will allow us to plan and cost out the extension of fiber to advance connectivity. We are actively engaged with the R&D community and industry leaders here in Cleveland to position our region for a strong, research-led engagement on bringing 5G wireless test beds to the Greater Cleveland area. Our Connect the Unconnected initiative is a good exemplar of the foundations for a meaningful civic IoT to advance the quality of life in our community and serve as a reference architecture for others. Likewise, we anticipate G.fast pilots and several other emerging technologies to join the mix. We have begun design work on rings 2-4 building off the work in the midtown campus district as we anticipate offerings both east and west of the downtown. We have also been asked to model extending gigabit connectivity to geographies around the Greater Cleveland area where poverty is quickly encroaching, bringing with it the downward spiral of economic and social challenges.

I want to end where I began. Designing and launching a reference architecture for a dedicated high speed broadband network and all the attendant wrap around services and support is my definition of civic technology. Connect the Unconnected is about making a small contribution to a simple idea. When history is written, our ability to extend access to the digital economy and all of its opportunities is the surest way to bet on a future of prosperity for all of us. Connecting the Unconnected is the promise of supporting those unserved and underserved to restart their dreams and hopes for a better tomorrow.

[The original of Lev’s blog post can be found here.]