The Cleveland skyline with Irishtown Bend in the foreground.
The Cleveland skyline as viewed from Irishtown Bend in Ohio City. Credit: Jeff Haynes / Signal Cleveland

Cleveland is opening its doors – and public right-of-way – to a company that promises to lay fiber-optic internet cable across the city at no charge to taxpayers. 

City Council on Monday approved a 30-year agreement with SiFi Networks to build an ultra-fast fiber network for residences and businesses. Last week, council signed off on a $20 million deal with DigitalC to offer low-cost broadband citywide. 

The two companies will handle different parts of Mayor Justin Bibb’s plan to expand Cleveland’s internet access. DigitalC must “raise the floor” of wireless broadband in Cleveland, as the administration has termed it – making $18-per-month internet available to everyone in the city. SiFi Networks is charged with raising “the ceiling,” opening the way to fast, market-rate fiber internet. 

The city’s development agreement with SiFi Networks smooths the way for the company to lay cable beneath roads and tree lawns. The company plans to spend $500 million on the project without asking for city subsidies, SiFi Networks President Scott Bradshaw told council.

That offer sounded too good to be true, multiple City Council members said. 

Bradshaw replied that SiFi Networks already has agreements to run fiber cables in 42 cities around the country. The for-profit company plans to recoup its costs by charging internet service providers and others to access the network.  

SiFi Networks embarked in 2021 on a $2 billion fiber expansion in cities around the country. The company has significant backing from Dutch pension fund investor APG. 

The city and the company are planning to spend two years designing the network, followed by five years building it, according to Austin Davis, the mayor’s senior policy advisor. 

Davis shared a map of Federal Communications Commission data showing that most of the city does not have access to fiber internet, particularly the northern portion of the West Side, Old Brooklyn and most of the East Side. 

The SiFi Networks proposal gives Cleveland a chance to get a leg up on its suburbs and Columbus, Davis said. In the 1980s, Cleveland lagged in wiring homes for cable TV, and it shouldn’t relive that experience with fiber, he said. 

“We can’t be last again,” Davis said. 

Keeping trees safe during construction

SiFi Networks’ contractor, Illinois-based Always Underground, typically digs trenches and buries the cables. But workers can also bore underground to minimize damage to tree roots and tree lawns, Bradshaw said. Members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers would do the work, Davis told council. 

Protecting the trees was a major concern for Council Members Jenny Spencer and Kerry McCormack, who receive earfuls from their West Side constituents when utility contractors hack away at tree limbs. 

Jennifer Kipp, the city’s urban forestry manager, told council that she had been involved early on in the city’s talks with SiFi Networks. The development agreement included her input, she said. 

“I feel confident sitting here today that our tree canopy will be protected during this implementation,” she said. 

Bibb administration officials said Cleveland plans to hire an inspection team, including an arborist, to review permits and monitor the work. SiFi Networks would pay for the contractors the city hires to assist the project. 

Bradshaw told council members that SiFi Networks welcomed their scrutiny. 

“I want you to have influence,” Bradshaw said. “I want you to have control of this project. If we’re not doing something right, I want you to have that power to say, ‘Hey. Project stops. You’ve got to rectify this.’”

Government Reporter (he/him)
Nick joins us from the world of public radio. He has more than a decade experience covering politics and government in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. In 2021, he produced and hosted "After Jackson: Cleveland's Next Mayor," an Ideastream Public Media podcast on the Cleveland mayoral race. He has also covered breaking news, opioid lawsuits and elections nationally for NPR.