CBRS helps Cleveland try to bridge divide: from worst to first

In a city where one of every three homes has no smartphone or internet, there is a lot of work to be done to bridge the digital divide, and a lot of people ready to do it.

Nokia, Microsoft, Siklu and Ubiquiti are all helping a non-profit WISP called DigitalC as it leverages federal funds and private donations to subsidize broadband service and infrastructure deployment.

“We’ve got four different ways that we’re connecting households in the last mile,” explained DigitalC CEO Dorothy Baunauch. “We’re very excited about the Nokia solution… a full layer of LTE over CBRS.”

Nokia is providing a private wireless network for fixed wireless access, a model the vendor says could be a blueprint for other communities working to bridge the digital divide. The deployment includes an LTE network core, radio units, and indoor and outdoor customer premise equipment which DigitalC employees and end users are installing.

The network will access CBRS spectrum using General Authorized Access at the outset, so there is no cost associated with spectrum access, but DigitalC could be preempted by a license holder at some point.

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DigitalC, which saw its subscriber base swell from 80 accounts to more than 1,000 as federal dollars started to subsidize connectivity, is using CBRS private wireless as the foundation of a larger strategy.

“The first thing is to just get as many people connected as quickly as we can,” Baunauch said. “We’re the least connected city in the country, we’re the poorest city in the country, and we want to get the technology to people as fast as possible."

"We can maybe go from worst to first," Baunauch said. DigitalC is targeting full coverage of Cleveland over the next five years, with an additional goal of connecting up to 40,000 of Cleveland’s 50,000 unconnected households by 2024. The project is a 5-year public-private partnership with a $70 million budget. DigitalC has raised just over $20 million from private donors and expects to rely on public sector funds for the remaining $50 million. 

The local school district assists with funding for devices, including LTE-enabled Chromebooks, Baunauch said. Other local non-profits are assisting with device procurement for households without schoolchildren.

DigitalC offers internet access for $18 per month at 50 Mbps downstream. Some people are able to get their access paid for by private companies that subsidize internet access in Cleveland, or by the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit program.

Baunauch said Nokia’s CBRS network will supply “as much coverage as we can get, as fast as possible,” and will work in tandem with DigitalC’s other solutions. The WISP is also using Ubiquiti rooftop access points for line-of-sight connections, a Siklu mmWave mesh network below the tree canopy, and hallway access points within multi-dwelling units (MDUs). 

Microsoft Airband, which provides connectivity using TV white space spectrum, is involved in the project as an adviser and also helped finance part of the Nokia CBRS network.

DigitalC has negotiated with city officials and private property owners for access to sites on which to deploy the CBRS radios. “Nokia’s engineering advice on helping us to do that has been critical,” Baunauch said, adding that many property owners are eager to help and will offer nominal lease terms.

Baunauch expects deployment of the CBRS network to start this month in two large Cleveland neighborhoods. She said DigitalC has “ordered the equipment to blanket the city with Nokia LTE over CBRS.”

Nokia’s Matt Young, head of Enterprise for North America, said the project has a special significance for him. “I used to live in Cuyahoga County where the network is being deployed,” he said. “It’s vital for homes in that area to have quality and reliable internet connectivity to allow people to work or learn from home, or to ensure equal access to services such as healthcare.”