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Pandemic underscores ‘redlining’ of broadband service in Baltimore | READER COMMENTARY

Mississippi is rated among the nation's worst places to work from home because it has the highest share of people who could telecommute but had the lowest share of people actually doing so before the coronavirus pandemic. Mississippi households also ranked lowest in access to internet which might explain why the state scored so poorly.
Mississippi is rated among the nation's worst places to work from home because it has the highest share of people who could telecommute but had the lowest share of people actually doing so before the coronavirus pandemic. Mississippi households also ranked lowest in access to internet which might explain why the state scored so poorly. (10,000/DigitalVision via Getty Images)

The school closures in Maryland brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic shine a bright light upon Baltimore families’ dependence on broadband internet service for our children’s education. The recent article, “Baltimore council members, advocates push for expanded internet access for low-income residents” (May 27), which focused on the efforts of City Councilman Zeke Cohen and the group SOMOS to require Comcast to expand broadband internet access, emphasized that “More than 40% of Baltimore residents” lack the service, the third lowest ranking in the United States. Mr. Cohen further lamented, “We live in a nation where we treat the internet like a luxury instead of a public need. If you can’t get online, very simply, you can’t learn.”

The “redlining” of internet service is not limited to the urban poor. In fact, broad swaths of rural America lack adequate broadband. If we want to level the educational playing field for all children, both rural and urban, a national response to this new form of inequality is required. Fortunately we have a precedent, the Tennessee Valley Authority or TVA.

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At the height of the Great Depression, the seven states drained by the Tennessee River were desperately poor and ill-served by the existing private utility companies. Thanks to the efforts of Sen. George Norris, David Lilienthal and others, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed The Tennessee Valley Authority legislation in 1933, establishing TVA as a federal agency to provide electricity, flood control and economic development to the Tennessee Valley. TVA not only helped modernize the region, providing thousands of jobs in the process, but also played a vital role in American research and development during World War II. While TVA’s history has not been without controversy, the organization remains an exemplar for modernizing economically deprived areas.

In a mere five months, our nation will face an election. When we cast our votes, we can choose to elect a president and members of the Congress who have the resolve to address the educational inequities confronting us. We don’t have to wait for a recurrence of COVID-19 or another epidemic to address the educational disadvantages that poor families face every day. Quality internet access, like water and utility service, is so central to our lives that we must regard it as a “public good.” We can make high-quality internet access available to everyone in this country, just as many other developed countries already do — whether it’s delivered via cable, fiber, satellite or a combination of technologies. We can prorate the cost, recognizing that we would be investing in an entire generation of young people. We just have to decide to elect people with the vision, compassion, and determination to make it happen. That’s what the New Deal did in the 1930s and we can do it again in the 2020s by establishing universal broadband internet service as an educational right for all our citizens.

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Joe Garonzik, Baltimore

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