Raspberry Pi is a program on Youngstown’s South Side that allows city school children to build their own computers and be part of their own expansion onto the internet.
Oak Hill Collaborative hosts Raspberry Pi. It is among a handful of other tech and maker services provided at the three-year-old neighborhood nonprofit facility.
It wasn’t long into the computer-building project that Pat Kerrigan, Oak Hill executive director, got his first smack of reality.
“Ten kids were in that class, and they get to take home computers after they make them,” said Kerrigan. “Two kids asked: ‘Can we leave computers here [at the collaborative office]?’
“I asked why, and they said they don’t have internet access at home, and no one else around them would let them have internet access.
“That was the eureka moment for me. We have to start thinking about better access. There has to be a way.”
That is where they are at today.
“They” is Oak Hill, Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, Western Reserve Port Authority and two state and national agencies that have united to focus on improving our internet strength and access.
It’s not great by two measures.
Internet strength in the Mahoning Valley is subpar – even where life is pretty good in the Valley. And due to economic conditions, it’s not internet access, period, that is the problem.
“Youngstown is suffering,” said Bill Callahan, a Cleveland-based member of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance who is also part of the Youngstown group.
The group released a report in March called “The State of Digital Inclusion in Youngstown, Ohio.”
In that report are some of the following findings:
The federal standard for residential internet service strength is 25 megabits per second. Only 10 percent of households in the county get that level.
66 percent of Mahoning’s households (or 65,380 out of 98,710 homes) get only 10 megabits per second.
Download speed is another critical measure, and the county, on average, gets 10 megabits in each home. The national standard is 25, again. Model cities are at 60 megabits and eyeing a life of 100 Mgbs.
Do we even know we’re suffering?
That is the first goal of the group – to seek input from citizens, businesses and various agencies about their capacity and their needs.
A key focus is Youngs-town.
That’s where the county’s bad numbers look their worst. Over the years, activists have addressed the city as a “food desert.” An internet desert could be declared as well, when internet capacity is measured.
The estimates are that city strength and access is 15 percent worse than an already meager county service. Of the 9,000 households in the county that hit the 25 mbps ideal measure for strength, just a small percentage actually reside in the city.
And for some in the city, there’s not even internet. Youngstown City Schools just launched an unprecedented alliance with Valley Christian Schools and Ursuline High School to join a national program that next year will put 300 internet connections into city schools.
On the surface, all of this could be dismissed as trivial because, you know, the internet is for watching silly YouTube videos and playing games and chatting.
“You can’t access to the current economy without good internet,” said Sara Wenger of Eastgate Regional Council of Governments. “Here’s an everyday example: Even applying for a job today at basic retail outlets. You are told ‘Go online’ to get an application. That is the standard at so many companies.”
She said it comes down to a community demanding a better class of internet.
Pittsburgh has a strong digital divide policy, she said.
Dublin, Ohio, is viewed as a leading digital city due to civic commitment, with nearby Hudson being right behind it, she said.
“Dublin is starting to push people to Hudson,” she said.
Of 11 metros with similar size and economics, the Youngstown area had the lowest (technology) score, she said.
“This is a regional issue – for economic development, but also for quality of life,” she said.
Youngstown schools has seen positive results when personal tech access is enhanced.
This year at its high schools, the district paired students with their own iPads and Chromebooks.
Tim Filipovich, chief of academic accountability, said results have been positive.
“Some high-school behaviors are better, and there is more engagement in the learning process,” he said.
“We have got to build the capacity in our neighborhoods so they can be competitive with suburban kids when they are at home.”
Kerrigan’s voice rises when he thinks about the digital gap – especially in the city.
“It’s not a digital divide. It’s an income divide. It’s a life divide. It’s a life-changing difference. I’m coming out of the city, and I don’t have the same tools?” he asks rhetorically.
“Gas, water, electricity. Internet is now one of those things. If you don’t have it, you will be further and further and further behind.”
They want to get about 2,500 homes and businesses into the survey.
I took it. You can find it at www.connectmycommunity.org/youngstown –mahoning
As the community feeds into the process what they desire, the group will chart next steps.
One of the more interesting steps will be how they address the companies that service Mahoning County internet.
To hear Callahan say it: The companies abandoned Youngstown.
On this topic, he is a new-age Ralph Nader of sorts for internet access, and his prime target is AT&T.
On his agency’s website, connectyourcommunity.org, you will find this brilliant article: “AT&T’s Digital Redlining of Cleveland.”
On the Vindy Facebook page, I will post his research maps that shows AT&T’s weak service. On the same website, you will see AT&T’s response.
All of it is bluff to him.
“AT&T has left Youngstown and other inner cities behind. I don’t buy the idea that the companies can’t do it. This has very little to do with ‘gosh we wish we could do more.’ They earned franchise rights by promising more,” Callahan said.
We have less. And that is what the group aims to fix.
Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs, too, on Vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.