Summit County should address digital divide’s causes, while avoiding costly investments

The internet has become interwoven into essentially all facets of daily life. Even though our society has returned to some sense of normalcy since the height of the pandemic, our reliance on the internet continues to grow. That’s why getting everyone online should be a top priority for policymakers, and why it’s troubling to see some leaders in Summit County want to pursue policies that would fail to get everyone connected and place key city services like education and public safety at risk.

In Summit County, about 15% of residents don’t have high-speed internet at home, according to the Census Bureau. This isn’t due to a lack of access to broadband infrastructure, as the Federal Communications Commission estimates that 100% of the county has access to three or more providers.

Instead, Summit County’s digital divide is driven by the same factors that fuel the divide in most other parts of the country — residents are offline because they can’t afford the cost of an internet subscription or because they lack the language or technical skills to get online.

The nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, which studies the digital divide, estimates that groups that are offline because of these non-infrastructure-related factors account for about three-fourths of America’s digital divide, and an even larger portion of the divide in more urban areas like Summit County, where everyone has access to three or more providers.

With these factors in mind, the calls by some for a countywide government-owned network (GON) are puzzling. The creation of a GON is only warranted in our nation’s most rural areas, where populations are so sparse that private investment does not yield a justifiable return on investment. This doesn’t apply to our county, which already has total coverage. A new network would be duplicative and do nothing to solve the county’s core issues of affordability and adoption.

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Now, with other issues that need addressing like education funding and public safety, it’s unwise for the county to allocate tens of millions of dollars toward this unneeded network, especially since there are other, federally funded solutions to bridge our divide.

The most potent tool to address those struggling with cost is the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). Created under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the program provides up to a $30 monthly credit toward an internet subscription to eligible households. Four in 10 Americans are eligible for the program, which when coupled with the low-income offerings available from most providers, makes an internet subscription virtually free.

At a fraction of the cost it would take to create a GON, Summit County should invest in an outreach effort to increase enrollment in the program. Other states and localities have shown that such efforts work. For example, after sending texts promoting ACP to about 1.3 million residents, Michigan gained 25,000 new enrollees. To address adoption, the county can mobilize community leaders who spread awareness about low-cost internet offerings and assist with digital literacy training that equips folks with the skills they need to get online.

These alternatives would cost drastically less to pursue and would have a profoundly more effective impact on bridging Summit County’s divide. For our community’s unconnected residents, I urge local leaders to enlist solutions that address our divide’s root causes, rather than expensive, ill-advised investments that don’t.

Alan Fortnoff of Akron is the CEO of Motivation Motivates.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Opposed to plan to expand government owned internet network