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Baltimore’s big opportunity to reverse digital redlining | COMMENTARY

Studies show lower income communities such as Baltimore and rural parts of Maryland lack adequate connection to the internet. (Baltimore Sun Graphic).
Studies show lower income communities such as Baltimore and rural parts of Maryland lack adequate connection to the internet. (Baltimore Sun Graphic).

Recently, Gov. Larry Hogan and top General Assembly leaders did what every Maryland politician dreams of doing: They announced $3.9 billion in new state spending for which they did not have to raise a penny in taxes. The one-time largesse, made possible by President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, aims to soften the blow of the COVID-19 pandemic and position the nation for a robust recovery. The various measures agreed upon by the governor and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson certainly have their merits. A billion-dollar boost to Maryland’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, for example, will hold off costly increases in certain taxes that hamper growth. But one investment looms larger than others because it addresses not just a short-term need but an especially critical long-term one: broadband.

If the pandemic has taught Americans anything beyond the importance of underappreciated front-line health and nursing care workers, as well as truck drivers, first-responders and even grocery store clerks, it’s the importance of internet connectivity. Many of us take for granted that we can open up our laptops, tablets or other devices and, within seconds, connect to work, school, and our families, or to essential goods and services and to our health care providers. Others do not have that opportunity. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Baltimore where approximately 40% of households are on the wrong side of the so-called digital divide. It is the worst kind of modern day redlining as being connected to the internet is no longer the curiosity of a generation ago, or even a luxury of years ago, but a service as essential as electricity, water and sewer.

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This isn’t just a Baltimore problem, of course. There are remote parts of rural Maryland that lack the necessary infrastructure for even minimal service. But the city’s struggles are especially noteworthy because of its racial and economic roots. It reflects a so-called “last mile” problem: Some households in less-favored neighborhoods aren’t wired for service but many more simply can’t afford it. Basic food and housing consumes too much of the family budget. Nor do they necessarily own computers. That’s why the record $300 million now set aside to address this problem in Maryland is more than just about stringing more fiber optic cable. It represents an investment in infrastructure, in affordability and in what advocates call “adoption”, or teaching people how to take advantage of this opportunity.

As much attention has been given to computers in the K-12 classroom, the patchwork fixes of the past that ignore household disparity simply aren’t adequate. Sure, ambitious students might get online at their local public library or through some other temporary fix with devices loaned to them, but it’s not the same as being truly connected. Nor is this a problem for school-age children alone. Adults need internet access, too. As we’ve observed before, Maryland’s economic future requires this. Post-pandemic, a lot of businesses will still rely on connectivity. Workers who can’t commute virtually will struggle to feed their families in much the same way as non-drivers without inadequate public transit do today.

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Is Baltimore ready to take advantage of this generational opportunity? It’s a good sign that Mayor Brandon Scott last month hired the city’s first-ever director of broadband and digital equity and highlighted this issue in his inaugural address. Jason Hardebeck will need to team with other stakeholders like the Digital Harbor Foundation to make sure Baltimore is the chief beneficiary of this spending. Just sitting back and expecting state government to correct past wrongs isn’t enough. The city will need a proposal on the table that will bring about meaningful change (perhaps with Baltimore establishing its own internet service if that’s required) and then demonstrate broad support for it — from business groups and advocates to communities and educators. Admittedly, $300 million is not enough to completely wipe away the digital divide even if every penny was spent in Baltimore, but it would surely be the game-changer that state leaders proclaim.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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