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Cleveland City Council's Utility Committee puts $20 million broadband plan on hold

The $20 million from the city of Cleveland to DigitalC would be the largest distribution of ARPA money to any single organization.

CLEVELAND — Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb's plan to use $20 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to provide provide citywide affordable internet access will have to wait a little longer to become reality.

On Thursday, Cleveland City Council's Utilities Committee voted to hold the proposal until next month. While council is set to go into its summer recess following Monday night's meeting, there will be one meeting in July and another one in August. 

Bibb's plan, introduced last month, would hand the $20 million in ARPA money to the local nonprofit DigitalC to go toward "infrastructure buildout, implementation, and service management – expanding the speeds and reach of their current low-cost network throughout the City." The proposal would allow all Cleveland residents, regardless of neighborhood or income level, to subscribe to internet access for $18 per month. 

At issue is the committee's fear that DigitalC is not prepared for the large challenge ahead. During the company's presentation at the committee meeting on Thursday, DigitalC CEO Joshua Edmonds stated that company has the capability to reach 23,500 households, but currently has just over 2,000 subscribers.

"If you have the ability to provide internet to 23,000 households and you only have 2,000, to me that's the red flag," said Councilman Brian Kazy, the chairman of the Utilities Committee.

In its proposal, DigitalC says it is aiming to be able to provide service to all of Cleveland's 170,000-plus households within 18 months. They also are projecting to have 23,500 subscribers within four years. 

"The elephant is the room is that DigitalC has a very checkered history of overpromising and incredibly underdelivering in this city to the tune of fractions of what's been promised has actually been delivered," said Councilman Kris Harsh. 

Harsh specifically pointed to a 2020 pitch from DigitalC, stating that it had the goal to connect 42,000 people. "Here we are, three years later, with 2,000 people connected," he said. 

"DigitalC is not doing a good job of selling itself. We're not saying that you can't get there, but in reality, you only have 2,000 customers," Kazy added.

The plan from DigitalC is actually is projected to cost over $40 million, which includes the $20 million from ARPA funds from the city, another $20 million from the Mandel and Myers foundations, plus $3 million from a federal earmark. 

The $20 million from the city towards DigitalC would be the largest distribution of ARPA money to any single organization. "DigitalC's reputation and everything else is on the line with this money," Kazy stated. 

"I hope the administration understands how critical this is," Councilman Michael Polensek said to Austin Davis, senior policy advisor to Bibb. "There cannot be any hiccups in this, as we've seen in other things, unfortunately. I want to say to all of your partners and your folks that are engaged in this process, that the old saying, 'the eyes of Texas will be on you.' They're gonna be on you. We're gonna see how this rolls out."

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