Connecting the unconnected

Rolando Alvarez, right, and his colleague, Field Operation Manager Joshua Phillips, inspect a transmission system on a rooftop.

Connecting the unconnected

Aided by Case expertise, a visiting scholar is engineering solutions to a problem he never expected to find in America.

By Robert L. Smith

Looking out from the rooftop of an apartment tower a short drive from the Case Western Reserve campus, Rolando Alvarez, a 35-year-old telecommunications engineer, sees reminders of his old neighborhood in the capital of Bolivia.

 

Sixteen stories below him, a neat gridwork of streets race off beneath a surprisingly lush tree canopy. The city looks tidy and organized. Yet Alvarez is aware of a damning deficiency. Most of the houses and apartment complexes in view lack a direct connection to the Internet. In home after home, people are navigating modern life without its handiest tool, as he did in the city of La Paz.

 

Standing aside a tall new antenna he helped raise, Alvarez sees both an engineering challenge and an improbable crusade. He never expected his engineering experience back home to apply so readily to his new job in America.

 

“Even now, in La Paz, the Internet penetration is very low–it’s very similar to Cleveland,” he said. “I was surprised to learn there was a city in America that had the same issues.”

 

Luckily for that city, Alvarez arrived with hard-earned insight. He’s the Director of Technology for DigitalC, a nonprofit organization working to bring fast, affordable Internet access to disconnected neighborhoods of Cleveland–using strategies he pioneered in South America.

 

 

The quest is supported by those who believe the Internet is critical to success in modern life, a pathway to degrees and careers, book reports and job applications. That includes experts at the Case School of Engineering, who are offering resources and technical support.

 

“Rolando is amazing. So is his team,” said Nick Barendt ’95, MS ’98, an adjunct professor for the School of Engineering and the executive director of the Institute for Smart, Secure and Connected Systems, or ISSACS. “It’s been great for the university to partner in a project that has neighborhood and regional impact, and is technology based, and really helps change people’s lives.”

 

Alvarez is on the staff of ISSACS as a visiting scholar. He consults with Barendt and with Professor Emeritus Ken Loparo, PhD ’77, the founding faculty director of ISSACS and an expert in connected systems. 

 

DigitalC’s approach to bridging the digital divide–using wireless technologies beamed from rooftops to create a high-speed network–has attracted influential alumni farther afield. Glenn Ricart ’71, MS ’73, PhD, co-founded US Ignite to help cities adopt and spread next-generation Internet technologies. Now Ricart flies into Cleveland from Salt Lake City to advise the DigitalC team at its headquarters not far from Case Quad. He sees a best practice emerging.

 

“What I like about what Cleveland is doing is they’re solving a problem seen by every other major American city,” said Ricart, who is enshrined in the Internet Hall of Fame as one of the creators of the Internet. “Cleveland is the first community in the country to pioneer this technology to address the digital divide. It’s a terrifically good story. I am very proud of what Case and DigitalC have been able to do.”

 

To be sure, there’s still a lot of work to be done. For all of its successes, DigitalC has so far connected only a fraction of city residents, and it’s unclear where the money will come from to finish the job. But an ambitious technology project is showing promise just a few blocks from campus while bringing the university closer to the city that surrounds it.  

Building an upstart network

 

Like many systems that address an urgent need, this one leverages established infrastructure while adding new flourishes. DigitalC is using a combination of land-based and wireless technologies to connect customers largely ignored by commercial Internet providers. It charges a bargain price of $18 a month for fast and reliable Internet connections. To do that, it’s tapping fiber optic cable laid years ago by another Case-connected nonprofit, OneCleveland.

 

In 2013, Gonick left CWRU to focus on OneCleveland, which changed its name to OneCommunity. He and Baunach spearheaded the installation of what was then the nation’s fastest commercial Internet service. In 2015, OneCommunity spent about $1 million in mostly federal funds to string fiber optic cable from PlayHouse Square to University Circle, laying the foundation for the Health Tech Corridor. 

 

That same year, DigitalC emerged from the end of OneCommunity, reflecting a focus on digital literacy and equity. Gonick left town in 2017 to become CIO at Arizona State University and Baunach assumed the leadership of DigitalC, which would soon address its greatest challenge yet.

 

Founded by Lev Gonick, the former chief information officer of CWRU, and Dorothy Baunach, an economic development specialist who earned her MBA at the Weatherhead School of Management, OneCleveland championed high-speed Internet access before it was fashionable. Then it raised the funds and rallied civic support to build a network.

 

A problem magnified 

 

People for years had worried about the “digital divide” – the gap between people who have online access and skills, and those who don’t — before the coronavirus pandemic magnified the chasm. Without Internet access, online school is impossible. When Cleveland schools went remote in 2020, thousands of children were cut off from face-to-face instruction

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The school district scrambled to respond. It distributed tablets and created mobile hotspots in what Baunach describes as “a massive effort,” but it was not nearly enough.

 

“Imagine a family of three on a hot spot,” she said. “You had to choose which child went to school at 9 a.m.”

The school district approached DigitalC for help, but the challenges were enormous. Surveys showed as much as half of Cleveland residents lacked broadband Internet and fully one-third of city households had no Internet access at all. In 2019, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance ranked Cleveland the “worst-connected large city in the nation.” 

 

There was, however, that fiber backbone offering speedy connections to hospitals and research centers in the Health Tech Corridor. If only the neighborhoods could tap that information lifeline without laying expensive new cable. But how?

 

Solutions from afar

 

Rolando Alvarez is a tall man with an easy smile and a head of thick black hair. He talks in the slow, precise diction of someone who has learned English as a second language. But he tends to speak briefly and move quickly, like a man on a mission.

 

He grew up five minutes from downtown La Paz, where he was part of a bustling major city in the Andes Mountains but separate from it, too. He grew up without the Internet, unaware of what he was missing. As he likes to say, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

 

Bright in math and science, Alvarez earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Escuela Militar de Ingenieria, one of the top technical schools in Bolivia, and followed that with an MBA from Universidad de Santiago de Chile.

 

He went to work for a Bolivia telecommunications giant, Entel S.A., in its planning department. Connectivity became his passion. He designed plans to expand Internet access to unconnected neighborhoods, including his own. Then he brought the Internet to rural areas of the nation, using satellites and Wi-Fi hot spots. He saw small businesses grow and lives change.

 

“I said, ‘Hey, this is pretty cool, I can have an impact,’” he said.

 

He left the telecom giant and launched a startup that focuses on expanding the Internet to rural Bolivia. For four years, he traveled to remote villages to set up Wi-Fi hotspots managed by community members. Partnering with chicken farms and schools, he became an expert at connecting the unconnected.

 

He says he learned the effectiveness of multilayer and hybrid networks to create cost-effective systems, as well as the importance of building community trust. TUINFO, which is now run by his younger brother, Miguel, brought the Internet to thousands. But Alvarez sought a bigger impact than he thought a for-profit venture could achieve. He grew intrigued by the nonprofit model in America. When the chance came to learn more about it, he seized it.

 

In 2018, Alvarez came to Cleveland through the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative, an exchange program for international entrepreneurs run by the U.S. State Department. He was matched with DigitalC to learn how a nonprofit operates. Baunach soon thanked the heavens.

 

Alvarez grasped the technical challenges and the possibilities, Baunach said. He designed systems with technologies that were cheap but effective, welcoming partners and their ideas. Equally important, she said, he understood the potential customers and what they needed.

 

“You can’t just do connectivity in neighborhoods that have never been connected,” she said.

 

DigitalC couples Internet connections with computer classes at senior centers, apartment complexes and in its offices. The classes are a staple of EmpowerCLE+, its initiative to bring affordable Internet service to the poor and disconnected of Cleveland.

DigitalC’s multilayer strategy uses a combination of direct connections, wireless connections and mesh networks to provide high-speed Internet service where it does not exist.

Case adds momentum

Alvarez’s residency was scheduled to last only a month, but Baunach kept him on as a consultant, then arranged for him to fly back the following year. In August of 2019, Alvarez moved to Cleveland to lead DigitalC as Director of Technology. He soon had a tech savvy institute as a partner.

 

ISSACS emerged from the Case School of Engineering in 2018 with the aim of making CWRU a world leader in connected systems and digital innovation. Part of its mission called for working with community partners to improve lives with technology. DigitalC offered a nearby project to get started on.

 

“It’s community centric technology,” said Loparo, a lifelong resident of the Cleveland area and the former chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Case. “It’s technology that can provide a viable solution, one that is robust, efficient and meets the needs.”

Loparo became a consultant to EmpowerCLE+, along with Ricart, who helped connect the nonprofit with National Science Foundation funding through US Ignite.

 

“When we run into technological snags, we’ll call Ken, Glenn (Ricart), even Lev (Gonick),” Baunach said. “So the help of Case has just been critical.”

As an example, Alvarez said he might share with Loparo two options for wireless technology he wants to deploy. He said the professor will ask questions and offer a recommendation, often favoring the simpler technology.

 

“He’s sharp. He knows the tech and he knows the community, so he can give a blended type of advice,” he said.

 

The Case advisors are helping build a system unlike any seen before.

“A fiber ring in the sky”

DigitalC’s plan to expand broadband does not include digging trenches and laying fiber-optic cables. That’s too expensive, Loparo said. Instead, it eyes buildings in the neighborhoods that already enjoy high-speed Internet service. DigitalC aims to connect homes to those buildings using the latest wireless technology. The result is a “fixed wireless network” that leverages existing broadband infrastructure.

 

Starting with the fiber optic cable, a signal is taken to the top of a building, like a dorm or an apartment tower, and “waved out” into the neighborhood, creating what Baunach calls “a fiber ring in the sky.”

 

In another innovation, DigitalC is using super high frequency millimeter wave technology, which can send more data faster. Ricart is especially excited by the approach, which he sees as a game changer, but it comes with its own technical challenges. 

 

Connecting wireless users to base stations using millimeter wave frequencies requires line-of-sight transmission. In other words, two stations can transmit and receive signals only when they are in direct view of one another. That means the network must be customized for tree cover, buildings, walls and other neighborhood features. 

 

Above all, DigitalC needs access to tall buildings–none of which it owns–to beam down the signal from on high. That’s why, from the roof of Addison Square Apartments at Wade Park Avenue and East 74th Street, Alvarez scans the horizon like a prospector. He’s looking for friendly landmarks poking above the cityscape.

 

He can see Clarke Tower, the tallest building on CWRU’s North campus, where he has already raised an antenna, thanks to his Case connections. To the south looms the colossal Juvenile Justice Center complex, where DigitalC affixed its first transponder years ago. He grimaces to look toward the abandoned bell tower at Euclid Avenue at East 81st Street, the slender remnant of St. Agnes Catholic Church. 

 

“I’ve had my eye on that steeple for a long time,” he said. “We don’t have it yet.”

 

To expand its network, DigitalC needs tall structures with a power source and a friendly owner offering cheap or free rent. Only then can it raise its antennas that change lives.

You’ll often find DigitalC technicians on rooftops in Cleveland. Photo courtesy of DigitalC.

Trying to help, trying to scale

 

Stephanie Hendking’s daughter was in the seventh grade when Cleveland schools, in the grip of a pandemic, told everyone to stay home. She’s a single mom with a modest-paying job and her home in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood did not have cable TV or an Internet connection. She’s not sure how much enrichment her children missed out during remote school, but she fears it was a lot.

 

“It was horrible,” she said. “It was so sudden. We spent a lot of time at the library. We have friends with Internet, we’d go to their houses.”

 

About one year ago, she became a client of EmpowerCLE+, DigitalC’s Internet service, and life changed again.

 

Now Ja’Maya researches her ninth-grade art projects on the home computer while Kendall, who is in the first grade, plays ABCmouse on her tablet. The connection is fast and DigitalC responds promptly to a problem, Hendking said.

 

“I refer people to them all the time, because I love their service,” she said.

 

As CTO of DigitalC, Alvarez stokes a network that is growing but not growing fast enough. After launching in 2019, EmpowerCLE+ enjoyed relatively rapid expansion as it connected housing complexes and apartment towers. By November of 2022, it was closing in on 1,800 subscribers. But customer acquisition slowed with the end of the pandemic and funding challenges make the initial goal of connecting 40,000 families by 2024 optimistic. 

 

DigitalC is pursuing broadband funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, but both Cleveland and Cuyahoga County have other suitors for their slice of that money, including Internet giants like AT&T and Spectrum. 

 

Loparo remains upbeat. He says DigitalC is pioneering technologies that could lead to new access strategies everywhere.

 

“The lessons being learned will be very, very useful for other urban communities that want to do the same thing,” he said.

 

Alvarez is anxious. People without Internet access are getting left behind, he says, whether they know it or not. He notes that most job and school applications today are online, as was the posting for the fellowship that brought him to Cleveland. His sister saw it online.

 

“The Internet is a whole ecosystem” that leads to opportunities, better healthcare, and a better life, he says. “Another side, that we often don’t see, is all the talent that we are missing out on.”

 

With sufficient funds, he thinks he could build out the entire network in two years. He might not be around to see that.

A whole new world

Alvarez has settled into a job with some tenure, but the clock is ticking. ISSACS helped him to secure a position with CWRU as a visiting scholar, which endows him with a temporary visa. His wife, Noelia—also a telecommunications engineer–moved here from Bolivia and the couple is raising its first child, two-year-old Mathew, in a house they bought in the Westpark neighborhood of Cleveland. 

 

Alvarez said hopes to stay in Cleveland for several years and then return to Bolivia and revamp his company as a nonprofit. 

Meanwhile, the partnership between DigitalC and ISSACS is deepening. The two groups are working together on an effort to monitor air quality in Cleveland neighborhoods with wireless devices, aiming to better gauge the health risks of air pollution.

 

Recently, DigitalC took steps to bolster its future. Baunach stepped down as CEO earlier this year, assuming the position of “strategic advisor” and making room for a young CEO. Cleveland native Joshua Edmonds arrived in November from Detroit, where he was that city’s first director of digital inclusion. 

 

DigitalC’s headquarters, built into a renovated century building called the Midtown Tech Hive, often bustles with activity. On a November morning, a lively group of senior citizens circled a conference table, staring quizzically at laptop screens and tapping out cautious commands on their keyboards. They were here for computer training classes co-sponsored by the National Caucus and Center on Black Aging.

 

Relatively young, many of the seniors were seeking work readiness skills. All were new to computers and the online world, which both baffles and intrigues them. The six-week course covers basics like Microsoft Word, how to browse for jobs and housing on the Internet, and tips for avoiding spam and scams.

 

“I won’t do online banking–nope–but what I Iearned is just so amazing,” said Lanetta Byrd, 61.

 

Next to her, Robert Reed, 62, exhaled to see an attachment open, revealing a Thanksgiving dinner invitation he had just created in class.

 

“To me, this is a whole new world,” he said. “I’m here to learn the basics. It’s like learning how to ride a bicycle and falling at the same time, but I’m having fun.”

He works for himself as an exterminator and a landscaper, and he’s never used the Internet to conduct business, he said, his voice turning serious. “I always did everything by hand, without a computer. I had no choice.”

 

His choices seem to be opening up. If he completes this course, which he intends to do, he can take home the laptop he learned on. The Internet awaits. 

 

“The world has changed,” he said. “I need this.”

 

Observations or questions? Please email Robert.Smith@casealum.org.

 

Robert Reed and Lanetta Byrd learn computer skills at a class at DigitalC. Photo by Robert L. Smith.

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