Mayor Justin Bibb’s administration is tapping a local nonprofit and a national telecom firm to expand high-speed internet in Cleveland.
Bibb is asking City Council to slate $20 million in federal stimulus funds for DigitalC, the nonprofit wireless internet provider. That money would help DigitalC expand its reach to offer $18-per-month high-speed internet to all Clevelanders.
The mayor is also proposing an agreement with the for-profit company SiFi Networks to build a citywide fiber-optic network. The company plans to spend $400 million on the project at no cost to the city, according to a news release from Bibb’s office.
“It’s going to signal to these other telecom companies that you’ve got to be competitive and you’ve got to make sure that you’re providing high-speed technology and high-speed fiber to every neighborhood,” Bibb told Signal Cleveland, “and we hope it starts that kind of competition that’s going to benefit our residents long term.”
The proposed deal with SiFi Networks would lay the groundwork for a longer-term internet expansion. The company would take two years to finalize a fiber-optic network design and spend no more than five years building the infrastructure, Bibb said.
The company announced a $2 billion plan in September 2021 to expand to 30 cities across the country, branded as “FiberCities.” SiFi Networks’ backers include Dutch pension investor APG and German investment firm Patrizia, according to company president Scott Bradshaw.
Bradshaw said SiFi Networks plans to invest “several hundreds of millions of dollars” in Cleveland and is not asking for taxpayer subsidies. The company is working in such cities as Kenosha, Wis., Arlington, Texas, and Fullerton, Calif., according to its website.
Although SiFi Networks plans to build and operate the fiber network, it is not an internet service provider, Bradshaw said. Instead, the company sells network access to ISPs and other companies looking for high-speed internet. The fiber could be used for broadband, telemedicine, home security and “smart cities” technology such as networked traffic and street lights.
“There’s a great opportunity for the municipality, once the infrastructure is in the ground, to leverage that infrastructure to drive those smart-city device technologies,” Bradshaw said.
The city’s digital divide between the connected and unconnected has made headlines for years. More than 16% of Clevelanders have no internet subscription, according to the latest available census figures, higher than the national average of about 10%.
DigitalC would use the city’s American Rescue Plan Act dollars to build upon its network of wireless access points in Cleveland neighborhoods. The nonprofit plans to expand its service over the next 18 months, CEO Joshua Edmonds said.
“It’s a very quick deployment style, because our thinking is the rescue plan, when we began looking at it, sought to address the effects of COVID-19,” he said. “And a lot of people in this city, either their internet was terrible during the pandemic or they couldn’t afford it.”
The nonprofit is pairing the city’s investment with another $20 million from the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Foundation and the David and Inez Myers Foundation. On top of that, DigitalC is seeking $10 million from the state and $3 million from the federal government, Edmonds said.
DigitalC aims to make the expanded service financially sustainable so that the nonprofit does not need to return to the city for more money, Edmonds said. Along with the expansion, the nonprofit will offer classes for customers who are less familiar with computers and the internet.
If approved, the contract with DigitalC would put to use money that council originally set aside for broadband in 2021. In the city’s news release, utilities committee chair Brian Kazy said it was important that any agreement make the service available to all Clevelanders.
“Two-thirds of our city lacks access to quality broadband internet,” Council President Blaine Griffin is quoted as saying in the release. “We hope this partnership leads to robust conversations about closing the digital divide for Clevelanders of all ages.”
In addition to connecting neighborhoods to high-speed internet, a more robust fiber network would make the city more attractive for businesses, Bibb said.
“This is the kind of infrastructure investment companies want to see to say, ‘OK, let’s consider Cleveland,’” he said. “And that’s why we’re so keen to jump start this infrastructure development right now to prepare the city for the next 10, 15, 20 years.”