Rolando Alvarez recently came to Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) from his native country Bolivia to join the ISSACS team. In Bolivia, Rolando founded TUINFO, a company that developed and deployed self-sustaining Wi-Fi hotspots in rural parts of the country, in hopes of closing the Digital Divide for low-income residents. In his current role with ISSACS, Rolando continues to work to bring affordable Internet service to low-income residents: this time in the City of Cleveland, where more than one-third of the residents are poor.
According to a May, 2019 Pew Research Center article, in the U.S., “roughly three-in-ten adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year (29%) don’t own a smartphone. More than four-in-ten don’t have home broadband services (44%) or a traditional computer (46%). And a majority of lower-income Americans are not tablet owners.” These all point to a significant Digital Divide, often reinforcing economic inequalities (“digital redlining”).
Rolando shared his experience with the ISSACS team about his work with DigitalC’s empowerCLE+ initiative that is bringing reliable,affordable, and sustainable broadband Internet to low-income neighborhoods, to begin to close the Digital Divide by offering Internet and support services for only $18 per month plus tax.
Compare the challenge of providing Internet to low-income urban residents here to the effort undertaken in rural Bolivia?
There is a lot of common ground in both endeavors. When you go into communities, you have to begin with an understanding of the culture of those to whom you are delivering service. The most important thing to start with is building trust, and understanding the culture, before even talking about technology.
How does an “outsider” go about gaining the trust of a community?
In Bolivia, I started by traveling to communities and working with local leaders and champions, being open-minded, learning what their day-to-day lives are like, what their needs are. Here in Cleveland, a lot of that work was already done by ISSACS, the IOTC and DigitalC via community engagements. Outputs from their work were used to start building what the service should look like: what are the uses, what are the needs? From there, you translate into more technical aspects. If they need the Internet, you have to provide enough bandwidth speed and an appropriate level of service. Don’t have contracts that last a year; there has to be an easy in and an easy out, because of income and expense volatility; if they can only pay for a month, they can still use it a lot in that period and maybe get a job in that month.
How does one move from building trust to talking about specific technology applications?
Once you start to build that trust, you can even go door to door, or do community events. For example, we did an event in Griot Village in Fairfax, where we launched the first service. We set up a few computers with Internet access and installed this game called Kahoot. We started with very casual questions, funny questions, about food, about animals, and gradually got deeper into more Internet services-oriented questions. Like okay, did you know you can check your health records via the Internet? Did you know you can apply for a job via the Internet? So we started mixing in questions that allowed us to gather more information on how they see the Internet, and to create that relationship and start putting facts out there about what they can do with the Internet.
Do you have a target demographic or penetration metric?
We are targeting basically 7 specific neighborhoods in Cleveland (initially) where the percentage of unconnected households is higher. We started with Fairfax, then Glenville, Hough, Clark-Fulton area, Woodhill, Central and Ohio City – for the first semester of this year. The idea is to spread city-wide and get to 42,000 residents in 5 years. This year we will connect 1,000 households by June/July and 4,000 by the end of the year (2020). We spent a lot of time this year building the core network and infrastructure and the business model. Now we will scale the business model.
What are the biggest roadblocks you have encountered in this effort?
One of the biggest is stakeholders that have the tall buildings don’t understand the urgency and necessity of delivering this service to the residents; we have had difficulty getting permits and permissions to deploy equipment on the rooftops. We need access for very low rent charges - just sufficient to cover our electricity usage - in order to make the business model sustainable. We need to educate, to convince these landlords of the economic impact of Cleveland’s status as the fourth-least connected city in the U.S. It contributes to our talent deficit when bright people who can potentially contribute cannot do so simply through lack of Internet access for personal development, job searches and so on.
What is your proudest achievement so far?
Being able to launch the service in Fairfax with the current DigitalC team was a great win, because it’s been a rollercoaster ride for everyone. The commitment of everyone involved, including the professors at CWRU, is helping to shift that dynamic so that we’re able to get out of our comfort zones to make this happen. This won’t be a regular Internet Service Provider (ISP), it will be a community ISP. This is new, so everyone needs to learn more, be more open-minded so we can scale this now. Now we have our network live, we have live customers, the business model is working: now we need to scale.