Furloughed from her job and holed up with her three children in their East Baltimore apartment, Miss Hill Crumity has done everything she can to get internet access so her children can use the two iPads provided by their elementary school.
But nothing is working. Her landlord wouldn’t let Comcast run cable through the walls of the apartment. The Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspots that Comcast has made free throughout the city don’t cover her neighborhood. So her only alternative is turning her phone into a hotspot her kids can use in small increments each day.
So far Crumity said she has spent about $150 on additional data, which she said she can’t really afford.
“I just think that it would be a lot more easier if we was allowed to have internet access whether we have to pay for it or not," she said. "My kids love school so I want them to be able to do the work.”
Crumity’s household is one of many throughout the city — about 22 percent according to 2018 census data — without any internet connection in a world that is shut down. The lack of high-speed data connections can be overlooked during normal times, but with schools closed for coronavirus, a family’s internet access can determine what kind of education its children receive.
“In order to help our communities be healthy and whole, we need technology to connect with families. If our families don’t have internet access, we are doing a huge disservice and are contributing to the inequities that have plagued our city,” said Chad Kramer, principal of Patterson Park Public Charter School in East Baltimore.
The pandemic has exposed the infrastructure shortcomings that have troubled the city for decades, said Andrew Coy at the Digital Harbor Foundation. While tech hubs grow along the Interstate 95 corridor, people in parts of Baltimore have difficulty applying for jobs online.
The Baltimore City Council granted Comcast a 10-year extension on its franchise in 2016, which allows it to operate within the city. While it is not an exclusive contract, other major providers have not sought access.
Low-income residents can sign up with Comcast for two months of free internet under a special program, but some, like Crumity, face barriers to getting the service. Principals and educators say some families are reluctant to sign up for two months of free service, believing that it will be difficult to cancel when they have to begin paying $10 a month.
Another way for people to connect would be to use the thousands of Wi-Fi hotspots Comcast placed around Baltimore for subscribers or pay-per-use. When the pandemic hit, Comcast made the hotspots free for everyone. But Comcast’s map of Baltimore shows the hotspots are concentrated downtown and in high-traffic areas, and limited in the most impoverished areas of the city.
Blocks of public housing, such as East Baltimore’s Perkins Homes and Latrobe Homes, for instance, have no hotspots. And Sandtown-Winchester, one of the city’s lowest-income areas, also shows few Wi-Fi hotspots.
“Comcast is addressing the digital divide in Baltimore and across the country head on, and this includes offering Internet Essentials for free to new customers for 60 days," said Jeff Alexander, a Comcast spokesman. “We permanently increased the speed of the program’s internet service for all customers and have opened up access to our Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspots in businesses and outdoor locations.”
The lack of connectivity has been a problem for years in the city. Digital Harbor’s Coy said Baltimore ranked 261st out of 296 cities in terms of internet access in one 2013 survey.
“If our families don’t have internet access, we are doing a huge disservice and are contributing to the inequities that have plagued our city.”
Chad Kramer, principal of Patterson Park Public Charter School in East Baltimore.
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In the Sandtown-Winchester, Harlem Park, Pimlico and Arlington neighborhoods, 38 percent of households aren’t connected to the internet, according to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance. In Canton, Fells Point and downtown — some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods — only 8 percent of families aren’t connected.
“Right now there are so many folks that are seeing directly the digital divide that has been hidden below the surface,” Coy said. Most people “couldn’t imagine living without it, but we don’t stop and think about people living without it.”
Seema Iyer, associate director of the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore, said it has been difficult for some time to get neighborhoods connected. Those parts of the city with active neighborhood associations, she said, have worked with Comcast to reduce the barriers to access. But in the poorest areas of the city there is little energy or organizing around the issue.
“That lack of connectivity, that is the key that literally isolates neighborhoods,” she said.
Iyer and Coy said it is difficult for people to access information about keeping themselves safe from the coronavirus, file for unemployment benefits, or work at home if they only have a smartphone. And principals said that while they can keep in contact with their students by phone, it is difficult for a child to do an assignment on a smartphone.
Even before the pandemic, an analysis of scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that eighth graders without access to the internet scored on average more than two years behind their peers, according to the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C.
“We have known about this problem ... we are trying to take quick action to make sure kids have access to remote learning," Iyer said.
A coalition of 49 city organizations and foundations has formed since the outbreak began to attack the digital divide. The Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition hopes to connect 2,000 households and increase free public Wi-Fi in the next two months.
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The city school system has purchased 12,000 Chromebooks and distributed them since the pandemic began. Other nonprofits and foundations are helping to refurbish older devices to fill in the gaps. And the city schools are hoping to project internal school WiFi networks into the surrounding neighborhoods.
Kramer, the charter school principal, said he was initially hopeful that his students would connect through the hotspots if they did not have internet access in their homes. But then he began hearing from one family after another who said they weren’t working for them.
As the length of time students are out of school buildings increases, parents and educators are becoming more and more concerned that large numbers of students may get little education.
Crumity said she has had to limit the amount of time her two girls, fourth grader Jaye and fifth grader Love, spend on their lessons because it is so expensive to have them connected through her phone.