There are thorny challenges that many in Baltimore are rightly confronting related to race, jobs and opportunity. But there is still one critical piece of the puzzle that has received little attention: dramatically expanding access to the Internet for all people, businesses and institutions in the city.
The city of Baltimore is at a critical point that is both challenging and filled with exciting possibilities. We have the opportunity to connect our entire city with a fiber-optic infrastructure that enables access to affordable, high-speed Internet — also known as broadband — for every home, school, library, company and city agency.
The impact would be enormous.
High-speed Internet provides a 21st Century communications infrastructure that can increase public safety, improve access to health care and connect students and adults with new ways to learn. It enables citizens to file and review public documents and to reach their elected officials in an efficient manner. Medical records can be shared rapidly among health care providers and their patients. Employees and students can access work files or educational resources from their home or anywhere they chose to work and learn. And expanded broadband is critical to attracting and retaining a range of high-tech businesses that rely on fast and reliable data transmission — and that often create good jobs.
The reality is that Baltimore's broadband infrastructure does not measure up to those in many other cities. While certain parts of the city have access to fiber-optic networks, the vast majority do not.
The city has recently released two reports that provide an initial broadband roadmap from the Smarter City Task Force and Magellan Advisors (available here: www.smarterbaltimore.org). Both call for immediate action to build out this essential, 21st Century infrastructure and ensure that Baltimore remains economically competitive and a great place to live and work.
We applaud city leaders for commissioning these reports, but now it is time to act — to advance the common good.
We should begin by creating an independent Broadband Authority to make real the goals articulated in these important reports. This means drafting a workable plan, budget and timeline for wiring the entire city. This means devising and hitting short-term, mid-term and long-range goals, with continuous transparency about how these goals will be financed. This means, most importantly, being responsive and accountable to the people of Baltimore.
Connecting the city will take time and money; it will take unprecedented coordination among civic leaders, corporate and academic institutions, the philanthropic community and individual Baltimoreans.
The investment in building a broadband system that serves the entire city will be substantial. But the costs of not doing this work are greater. Our city's health and safety infrastructure will decline. We will be unable to attract new, creative-economy businesses. Existing businesses will move to cities and counties where high-speed Internet systems are accessible and affordable. Our families and students will not have the educational advantages necessary for success in the connected, global economy.
We urge the city of Baltimore to move quickly, but carefully, to create the much-needed Broadband Authority and act with all deliberate speed to devise a comprehensive, workable plan to move us forward.
Our democracy is grounded in essential tenets, including the need to preserve the public interest and work for the common good. In 21st Century Baltimore, broadband is critical in the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Jane Brown is president of the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation. Robert Embry is president of the Abell Foundation. Jennifer Meyer is president of Betamore. Also contributing are: State Sen. Bill Ferguson; Alyce Myatt of Alyce Myatt Consulting; Dr. Philip Spevak, co-leader of the Baltimore Broadband Coalition, and Mark Wagner, managing partner of Bay-Tek Consulting. The authors can be reached at email@example.com.