Bridging the region’s digital connectivity divide

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed multiple societal inequities, many of which were previously under addressed by both policy and charitable efforts. Existing underlying needs were laid bare, and the haves and have nots suddenly came into view in ways previously unseen. The startling consequences of public shutdown were swift, segregative and broad in scope.

Across the nation, an imbalance in digital capability became grossly apparent. As terms like “work from home,” “Zoom meeting” and “remote learning” further whittled their way into the common vernacular, many rural and low-income residents were left in the lurch. Those who were not deemed “essential” within the pandemic landscape often lacked the proper means for virtual transportation to their previous jobs or studies. Children attempted to do schoolwork on cellular phones. Teachers in remote communities struggled with inadequate connectivity for reaching their students simultaneously or in groups.

While funding was rapidly distributed at the federal and state levels through the CARES Act and various other emergency relief efforts, questions remain about the outcome of these hurried attempts to bridge the digital divide. How have local communities been affected? What continuing changes are being made to bring digital equity to Cincinnati and its surrounding communities with their vastly different needs?

At the onset, CARES Act funding rushed tech devices to the doorsteps of underserved children, and local internet companies offered free connectivity to low-income residents. This, however, was difficult to procure or implement, as phone lines were immediately and continuously jammed with requests for the sought-after benefit.

Eventually, providing hotspots and free broadband to neighborhoods, businesses or even specific apartment complexes was seen as a viable blanket method, but only as a short-term solution to a much larger problem.

Digital inequity is the modern-day version of transportation inequity. In today’s society, being unable to easily reach out along these new, virtual paths is similar to having a broken down, out of gas or nonexistent vehicle. Parallels of motility can be drawn of owning outdated or broken devices, having no or slow internet access, or both.

Renee Mahaffey Harris has been president and CEO of The Health Gap for the past three years. Although her organization’s mission is more about empowering Black communities to be proactive about their health, the pandemic increased the need for assistance with tech barriers as a facilitative aspect.

“I think all these issues are systemic issues which cannot be solved overnight. And so, what the pandemic did was just further widen the understanding of a gap to equity in care. Not that anybody designed the great broadband system to leave a population out – I’m not saying that, but I think COVID just exposed the gap,” observes Mahaffey Harris.

Mahaffey Harris’s work revolves around underserved minority populations in communities around the city of Cincinnati. However, she worries about inequity and systemic issues in remote areas as well. She is in contact with many transplanted Appalachian communities pocketed around the vicinity and strives to understand their needs and provide them with resources.

Funding that was mostly targeted at areas with the worst COVID-19 outbreaks left outlying communities healthier overall, but even more isolated in a sense. While systemic issues surrounding online healthcare and new formats like Telehealth in both rural and low-income communities nearer the city are somewhat analogous, the solutions are different due to layout.

Renee Mahaffey Harris, President/CEO of The Center for Closing the Health Gap“There is an intentionality around looking at it – an understanding that there's not a one size fits all and no population is monolithic, “offers Mahaffey Harris. “Rural communities have very big challenges, different than urban settings, because the geography requires more mobile strategies. People live distant from that source of medical care, and the solution looks different.”

So, what progress has been made locally towards long-term solutions for bridging the disparate digital gaps exposed by the pandemic?

“The effort to eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities, advocacy, education and community outreach is our mission,” says Mahaffey Harris. “How we do that is through our grassroots mobilization model, which is focused on activating the individual agency of the people that we are serving so that they get the tools and knowledge to be a part of their own health solutions and advocate for themselves.”

“COVID resulted in us getting a grant for iPads with programming, and we designed an instruction guide. Our team then went into senior buildings and other community-based sites to train people on how to better utilize technology,” continues Mahaffey. “Implementation of tech skills was part of it for older residents and members of the community that didn't have access.”

Additionally, The Health Gap conducted a town hall format webinar to assist residents with effectively navigating the Telehealth landscape. This was important because, as Mahaffey Harris stresses, the provided resources were worthless without the knowledge of how to access them using specific (and often unfamiliar) tools.

“One of those tools is broadband or having the right device. But if (tech training) isn’t something that educational loop has been closed on, you can’t be given the access to it,” says Mahaffey Harris.

“We were also contacted by three different neighborhoods – Avondale, Evanston and Walnut Hills – because parents, even though their children were getting (tools) to work remotely, weren't able to assist their children with navigating whatever that technology was that they got,” adds Mahaffey.

Mahaffey Harris firmly believes that addressing various longstanding systemic issues at their core is the only way to enact actual change in neighborhoods with serious economic problems but faults the incongruence of various outreach methodologies for hindering the achievement of this shared, overall purpose.

She says she is also frustrated by the shocking lack of local awareness of vast community resources she frequently sees. She believes that the allocation of these assets could be improved with more organization – specifically via informed data use guiding precisely curtailed delivery systems that “meet different groups of people where they are.”

The Health Gap’s website now includes a link directing users to an online survey about their at-home broadband capability, which collects useful data for a partner organization about how well those contacting The Health Gap are being served in relation to digital connectivity.

“The strategies to correct or address the challenges have to be very targeted,” reiterates Mahaffey Harris. “Our data tells us where we are. The factors are very difficult to change because they didn't get here overnight. And there is no quick fix. Those are the realities. It's not easy. If it were easy it’d be done.”

Jason Praeter, President and General Manager of altafiber’s network division“High-speed connectivity is essential in order for individuals to access education opportunities, employment opportunities, and healthcare opportunities as we live in a world where remote education, remote work, and telemedicine are increasingly prevalent,” explains Jason Praeter, president, and general manager of altafiber’s network division.

But according to a research study by Benton Institute for Broadband & Society over half of funding from the CARES Act focused on digital learning for K-12 students, while only a third was spent on broadband infrastructure – now viewed as a vital resource for success in developing and sustaining wealth in local communities.

While in retrospect this may have been shortsighted, paving the way for future employment opportunities and healthcare took a backseat to the immediate need for educational provisions because schooling was the more obvious pandemic problem, at least at first glance.

Altafiber, formerly Cincinnati Bell, has been an active local and regional participant in several recent initiatives aimed at bridging the connectivity gaps initially exposed by the pandemic. The priority has been to stretch broadband fiber into rural communities and get low-income residents no-cost access in their homes, local businesses, and community buildings. 

Altafiber’s goal of extending its fiber network to underserved communities has been strengthened by the corporation’s recent acquisition by Macquerie. Furthering the mission of connectivity for all are programs such as Connect Our Students, the NKY Digital Equity Initiative, UniCity (altafiber’s Smart City organization), and a partnership with the Butler Rural Electric Cooperative.

The BREC partnership brought fiber-based internet to approximately 2,000 Butler County member locations, along with obtaining the cooperative’s substations and switching equipment in 2021; while UniCity delivered fiber-enabled, high-speed public Wi-Fi to Clovernook Apartments, Compton Lake, Burney View, and Lake of the Woods. In total this represents 828 apartment units in Mt. Healthy that now have access to public Wi-Fi.

“We were thrilled to assist the City of Mt. Healthy in connecting more Hamilton County residents, schools, and businesses to the internet over Wi-Fi,” was the sentiment of the President of the Hamilton County Board of County Commissioners Stephanie Summerow Dumas, regarding the UniCity initiative in Mt. Healthy. “We’ve been able to make a transformative investment in our community’s ability to increase digital equity.”

James Wolf, Mt. Healthy Mayor, felt similarly, adding an emphasis on public/private partnerships: “By working together, Mt. Healthy City School District, the City of Mt. Healthy, the State of Ohio, and altafiber are increasing information accessibility for our residents and bridging the digital divide.”

Dr. Valerie Hawkins, Mt. Healthy Schools Superintendent also weighed in, saying, “The students at Mt. Healthy City Schools deserve every opportunity to help them achieve their potential. Removing the obstacle of reliable Wi-Fi is a step closer to equity for our students.”

The current goal of altafiber’s UniCity effort in the City of Wyoming is slightly dissimilar due to differing community needs. A focus on WiFi coverage in the central business district, the village green and Crescent Park is intended to enhance community engagement for visitors and residents with seamless event navigation and calendar updates. This is part of a broader effort to ignite economic growth in Wyoming.

Springfield Township, Montgomery, Cheviot and Lockland have also benefitted from UniCity partnerships. Many local leaders look toward the possibility of expansion for UniCity and similar initiatives, hoping for assistance with their own communities’ various requirements for connectivity.

“We could definitely put assets like that to good public use. I think the ability to offer free high speed internet access to low-income communities could benefit those local economies,” says Stefan Densmore, Mayor of the Village of Golf Manor.

As a result of pandemic-wrought struggles – faced nationally, as a region, as a city, and as individual communities – a developing landscape has been further revealed. New paths to navigate have been created, and new ways of addressing barriers to longstanding issues of equity have begun. Over time, with planning, partnerships and communication, gaps can be bridged – bringing one unique household at a time into this modern age of interconnectivity and all the resources it can bestow.

The Health Gap’s Mahaffey Harris sees this as a great opportunity.

“COVID-19 gave me hope. I mean, I know it was difficult time for all of us, but it gave me hope because we had no choice but to work together. And when we work together, we tackle hard issues,” she says. “We can continue to move down this continuum. We need to recognize that when we had to do it, we did it, right? Let's figure out how to keep doing it. We need to understand that when we are all better, then we are better as a community.”

The First Suburbs—Beyond Borders series is made possible with support from a coalition of stakeholders including Mercy Healtha Catholic health care ministry serving Ohio and Kentuckythe Murray & Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation - The Seasongood Foundation is devoted to the cause of good local government; LISC Greater Cincinnati LISC Greater Cincinnati supports resident-led, community-based development organizations transform communities and neighborhoods; Hamilton County Planning Partnership; plus First Suburbs Consortium of Southwest Ohio, an association of elected and appointed officials representing older suburban communities in Hamilton County, Ohio.
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Read more articles by Eliza Bobonick.

Eliza Bobonick is a Cincinnati-based writer and a mother of three. Her work has been featured in such local and regional publications as Cincinnati CityBeat and Kentucky Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a former musician whose interests include photography and interior design.