September 29, 2021
DigitalC, a Cleveland-based nonprofit, is working with Nokia to build a private LTE network to deliver high-speed connectivity to underserved homes in the city. The organization hopes to have all 34 neighborhoods in Cleveland covered with its network, which will operate over a mixture of unlicensed 3.5GHz CBRS and mmWave spectrum, by the end of 2022.
DigitalC was formed in 2015 with the goal of delivering connectivity to underserved communities in the city, which is ranked one of the worst cities for connectivity. A 2019 American Community Survey found that 30.7% of Cleveland households have no broadband access and 36% have no wired connection.
The organization's roots were initially in fiber. Before DigitalC was formed in 2015, the group was known as OneCommunity and owned a middle mile and dark fiber network. Initially its plan was to be a middle mile provider for nonprofit organizations, but the founders decided it was too capital intensive and there was no way to sustain the business without providing middle mile services to for-profit businesses.
Instead, the organization decided to sell the nonprofit's middle mile assets to a for-profit provider and then form DigitalC, using the money from the asset sale to deliver broadband using wireless technology instead.
"We presented the plan to our board and asked to invest the funds from the sale of the middle mile to develop a sustainable business model that would allow us to take the Internet to 40,000 or 50,000 households," said Dorothy Baunach, CEO of DigitalC. The board agreed and the group got to work on its wireless plan.
Enter Nokia and Siklu
According to Baunach, the company initially used a solution from vendor Siklu that used 60GHz unlicensed millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum to deliver point-to-point high-speed broadband connectivity. Baunach said that the company was able to provide connectivity to 550 homes using that technology but discovered that Cleveland's abundance of trees made it difficult to scale the solution, due to signal interference from foliage.
Then, officials from Microsoft's Airband initiative reached out to DigitalC. Microsoft launched Airband in 2017 with the goal of bringing broadband connectivity to 2 million people in the US by July 2022.
Baunach said that Airband officials suggested DigitalC look at using LTE over CBRS. The nonprofit liked what it saw and started working with Nokia on a solution. "We discovered that, with this model, we can scale," Baunach said.
DigitalC plans to use unlicensed 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum and Nokia's network core, radio access products and indoor and outdoor customer premises equipment (CPE).
Baunach said that initially the group did face some delays with permits but now it expects to have at least two neighborhoods up and running with the LTE service in the next couple of weeks.
Baunach said that the group plans to offer 50Mbit/s speeds over LTE and up to 1Gbit/s speeds over mmWave.
The organization's plan is to support up to 40,000 customers in five years. It's working to secure $20 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which allocated $350 billion to state, local and Tribal governments for, among other things, broadband infrastructure.
Baunach said that she believes that wireless operators aren't too happy with DigitalC's plans to blanket Cleveland with LTE coverage, but she also notes that most of the people that DigitalC plans to cover do not have Internet or cell phone service today. "We will build in neighborhoods that they [operators] won't," she said, adding that DigitalC is in the broadband game for the long haul. "We are building an affordable and sustainable system for the city."
— Sue Marek, special to Light Reading. Follow her @suemarek.
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