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Baltimore will build public Wi-Fi hot spots with next round of American Rescue Plan funding

Baltimore will offer public internet access inside and outside recreation centers and install an additional 100 community Wi-Fi hot spots with a $6 million investment in federal funding announced by Mayor Brandon Scott on Tuesday.

The funding, which is the city’s latest allocation from a $641 million pot of money from the American Rescue Plan, will be used to run fiber to 23 recreation centers, allowing residents to access the internet from the surrounding area.

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Additional public Wi-Fi hot spots will be installed across 10 West Baltimore neighborhoods identified by city officials as underserved: Bolton Hill, Coppin Heights, Druid Heights, Easterwood, Madison Park, Mondawmin, Penn North, Reservoir Hill, Sandtown-Winchester and Upton.

Officials said they expect to have the service running within five years.

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During a news conference at James McHenry Recreation Center, Scott said the coronavirus pandemic laid bare a digital divide that creates significant disadvantages for some residents.

“The COVID-19 pandemic showed us all in a very big way that internet access has become fundamental to our daily lives,” Scott said. “Internet equity is not a choice but is an imperative thing that we must do.”

Mayor Brandon Scott, left, with Jason Hardebeck, director of the Mayor’s Office of Broadband and Digital Equity, center, Councilman John T. Bullock, right, and other city officials announce a $35 million investment to close the digital divide.
Mayor Brandon Scott, left, with Jason Hardebeck, director of the Mayor’s Office of Broadband and Digital Equity, center, Councilman John T. Bullock, right, and other city officials announce a $35 million investment to close the digital divide. (Amy Davis/Amy Davis)

The $6 million investment, which will also pay for hiring a digital equity coordinator and staff with experience in Wi-Fi deployment, is part of a larger $35 million allocation Scott is making to the Mayor’s Office of Broadband and Digital Equity to further close the digital divide. Further details were not offered on what the rest of the money will be used for; Scott said more information will come early next year.

An additional 27 recreation centers not included in Tuesday’s announcement are already on the city’s fiber network, officials said, and can also serve as hubs for expanded internet access to surrounding areas.

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The service is not intended to reach into surrounding homes, but will serve spaces like parks and transportation hubs near the recreation centers, said Jason Hardebeck, director of the Mayor’s Office of Broadband and Digital Equity.

The public Wi-Fi is meant to supplement, not replace, in-home internet service for residents, Hardebeck said.

Officials could not provide a range for how far service will reach, but the goal is to extend the range as far as possible using commercial-grade equipment, he said. The range for each location will depend on line-of-sight challenges, such as trees, he said.

Scott campaigned in 2020 on a promise to close the city’s broadband gap by the year 2030, a pledge he reiterated Tuesday. He hired Hardebeck, Baltimore’s first director of broadband and digital equity, shortly after taking office just over a year ago, but the ARP funding is the first significant investment in public broadband during Scott’s tenure.

Hardebeck said that nearly 100,000 households in the city lack reliable access to the internet.

“History has shown that a laissez faire approach perpetuates and often deepens structural inequities,” he said. “It is the proper role of government to ensure that all citizens have equal access to the basics necessary to survive in civil society. Like clean water and public roads, broadband access has become one of those essential services.”

Baltimore has announced plans for a little more than half the $641 million the city received from the American Rescue Plan, a federal program designed to help cities coping with the financial toll of the pandemic. Other investments include $80 million for COVID-19 testing and prevention efforts and $50 million for violence reduction projects. This month, $55 million was dedicated to workforce development and economic recovery programs. An additional $141 million has been set aside to balance upcoming city budgets, hit hard by pandemic-related costs.

The application for city agencies and nonprofits to receive some of the funds is open until Dec. 31. Projects must cost at least $250,000.

Earlier this month, Baltimore City Council unanimously passed a bill calling on the mayor to report on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis to the council on ARP spending that’s under the administration’s control. Scott has yet to sign the measure. Councilmen Zeke Cohen and John Bullock, both Democrats like the mayor, appeared at Tuesday’s news conference but did not speak.

Recreation centers that will be upgraded to offer community internet access:

  • Bentalou, 222 N. Bentalou St.
  • Carroll F. Cook, 5061 E. Eager St.
  • Cecil Kirk, 909 E. 22nd St.
  • Crispus Attucks, 1600 Madison Ave.
  • Dewees, 5501 Ivanhoe Ave.
  • Ella Bailey, 100 E. Heath St.
  • Fred B. Leidig, 301 S. Beechfield Ave.
  • Gardenville, 4517 Hazelwood Ave.
  • Greenmount, 2304 Greenmount Ave.
  • Herring Run, 5001 Sinclair Lane
  • Hilton, 2950 Phelps Lane
  • James D. Gross, 4600 Lanier Ave.
  • James McHenry, 911 Hollins St.
  • Lillian Jones, 1310 N. Stricker St.
  • Madison Square, 1400 E. Biddle St.
  • Medfield, 1501 Wood Heights Ave.
  • Mora Crossman, 5900 E. Pratt St.
  • Oliver, 1600 N. Spring St.
  • Patapsco, 844 Roundview Road
  • Roosevelt, 1221 W 36th St.
  • Samuel F.B. Morse, 424 S. Pulaski St.
  • Solo Gibbs, 1044 Leadenhall St.
  • Woodhome, 7310 Moyer Ave.
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