There is a monopoly for fast Internet services in Baltimore City. As a consequence, a new Comcast customer can pay as much as $1,000 more over two years for standard "triple-play" service (telephone, Internet and cable television) than would a new customer in Annapolis, where competition exists. And the fastest Internet speed offered by Comcast in Baltimore is only one-third of what is currently available in Annapolis and most of the state.
We pay more for less in Baltimore because fast fiber optic technology — often called fiber to the premises (FTTP) — is not widely deployed to our homes and businesses like it is in every county surrounding the city and along much of the East Coast, and because Comcast does not operate in a competitive environment in the city.
Extending FTTP and allowing alternative Internet service providers the opportunity to compete in the city is why 14 communities in north Baltimore have partnered to create the Baltimore Broadband Campaign. We want to demonstrate that, through the intelligent use of existing fiber infrastructure and the installation of new fiber where necessary, an economically viable, competitive FTTP-based broadband service is possible in the city. And it need not come from Comcast or Verizon: there are over 800 fiber optic providers of various types in the United States. Apparently, though, none have yet seen adequate economic opportunity to invest extensively in Baltimore. We want to change that.
Our campaign's first phase involves a grassroots crowdfunding effort through which we hope to convince providers that there is sufficient demand to warrant the deployment of a competitive, fiber-based broadband service in Baltimore. Having residents demonstrate interest before fiber deployment is committed is an approach that been used successfully in a number of places around the country including but not limited to Kansas City, Austin, Wake Forest and smaller cities in Mississippi. Grassroots support is building, particularly as residents come to understand that there are no legal barriers preventing new fiber optic deployment.
Demonstrating demand alone is unlikely to change the broadband landscape. By adding communities to our campaign and extending the campaign to include the entire city, we hope to engage our city and state leaders to a greater extent. We hope our campaign will lead to a second phase where, in partnership with elected officials, there is a change toward more proactive public policy. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Councilman William Cole understand that the availability of fast Internet is a necessity for economic revitalization. The mayor commented earlier this year that "you can't grow jobs with slow Internet." She also noted the economic injustice when 20 to 40 percent of Baltimore residents are not even connected to the Internet, slow or otherwise. The councilman has spoken to the necessity of effective broadband in attracting startups, particularly in the biotech area.
Good public policy requires a clear vision, a rational plan and effective execution.
First, we believe that vision must include extending fiber to the premises with connectivity for all. The best plan is not one size fits all. Where sufficient demand exists, fiber should extend to homes, business and public/private institutions. Where fiber deployment costs are extremely high or market demand is insufficient, other technologies may be more practical, including, for example, gigabit Wi-Fi.
Second, the city owns approximately 3.9 million feet of underground conduit (the passages through which our utilities run), and some of these contain city-owned fiber. That conduit is valuable, but only if the city knows where it is and its condition. Right now, we do not know. Therefore, the city must accurately locate, but also articulate clear and predictable procedures for leasing, its conduit.
Third, the city should establish "dig once policies," coordinating, if not requiring, fiber optic installation with other capital improvement projects such as road repaving or trenching for utility work.
Fourth, the city should convene and facilitate a monthly or quarterly broadband round table, involving existing service providers and fiber facility owners within the city, city personnel, interested citizens and other stakeholders.
Fifth, our state and federal officials are also critical in this effort. Sen. Barbara Mikulski was instrumental in the creation of the extremely important One Maryland Inter-County Broadband Network, which brought 1,000 linear miles of new fiber deployment, some of which is located in and owned by the city. Internet providers resist municipally owned fiber and in 20 states have successfully lobbied to restrict municipal ownership of fiber networks. We need the help of our state government leaders to prevent such a barrier from being erected in Maryland, and we need our federal officials to influence the Federal Communications Commission to remove such barriers in states in which they are present.
Many other cities throughout the nation are making rapid progress installing fiber broadband infrastructure and services. It's time for the citizens of Baltimore City to stop paying more money for less and work together to bring faster and cheaper Internet to our homes and businesses.
Dr. Philip Spevak, Stan Wilson and Anthony Gill are co-leaders of the Baltimore Broadband Campaign. They may be reached at BaltimoreBroadband@gmail.com, on Twitter: @BaltBroadband and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/BaltimoreBroadband.
To respond to this commentary, send an email to email@example.com. Please include your name and contact information.