Abell report: City government could play greater role in expanding internet access

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Photo by Wally Gobetz, via Flickr

With the COVID-19 pandemic highlighting the city’s persistent problems with internet access, Baltimore City government could play a greater role in expanding technology to low-income homes and training residents how to use it, according to a new Abell Foundation report.

John B. Horrigan, former director of the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan, lauded a recent move by Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and the Baltimore City Council to take $3 million from the Children and Youth Fund and spend it on laptops and increased internet access.

But he wrote Baltimore should follow the lead of other cities and make closing the connectivity gap more of a priority across all government agencies, and the city could work with more businesses and anchor institutions to get residents computers and broadband internet, and train them on new technology.

“This means having the city’s elected officials place greater priority on digital equity and investing in staff capacity and expertise in how broadband can help increase educational and economic opportunity,” Horrigan wrote.

Some other efforts are already underway to increase access and get more computers into the hands of Baltimoreans, Horrigan pointed out. The group DigiBmore restores old computers and gives them to students, and 50 tech organizations have banded together to close the digital divide.

And there is computer training for residents at the Enoch Pratt Free Library and from nonprofits such as Byte Back and the South Baltimore Learning Center.

Still, Baltimore’s problems with access are vast and can’t be solved overnight, Horrigan said. An estimated 96,000 households in the city are without broadband internet, and as of 2018, nearly one in three homes did not have a desktop or laptop computer.

The effects of those gaps has been compounded during the pandemic, which has forced thousands of students to conduct schoolwork while at home. Baltimore City Public Schools has distributed 25,000 Chromebooks to students, and the Baltimore Brew reports about half of the $3 million from the government will purchase 3,500 more.

According to Horrigan’s analysis, the number of Baltimoreans subscribed to broadband remained relatively flat from 2016 to 2018, increasing from 58.4 to 59.3 percent. Nationwide and in 33 major cities Horrigan studied, it increased 2 percent.

But both those 33 cities and the country had higher subscription rates in 2016, at around 67 percent.

And the connectivity gap has an impact in the classroom even when there isn’t a pandemic. Horrigan cited a Michigan State University study that found students with broadband internet at home earned higher grades, completed homework at a higher rate and learned more computer skills compared to their peers who went online through their smartphones or had no home internet.

Not having a laptop or desktop can hurt adults who are older than school age. According to a Pew Research Center study cited in the report, nearly 70 percent of adults use larger screens to improve their skills or look for job resources.

Like so many disparities in Baltimore, the lack of internet or a computer has a deeper impact on the poor. Only 42.8 percent of low-income homes had a laptop or desktop computer, compared to 90 percent of homes with an annual income of more than $75,000.

And while 83 percent of high-income households have wireless internet, only one-third of low-income houses also have the service.

Horrigan concluded that there would have been notable progress if Baltimore had simply kept pace with the rest of the country and peer cities in expanding internet access from 2016 to 2018.

If the city had grown broadband at the same rate as the U.S., there would be internet in an additional 25,000 homes.

“More modestly, had Baltimore’s growth in home wireline adoption from 2016 to 2018 been like cities such as Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Detroit, and Cleveland, 12,000 more households in the city would have wireline broadband service,” he wrote.

There are some federal remedies the city could use to expand access. The government could expand a FCC program, Lifeline, providing internet to people in low-income households for $9.25 a month. Service providers also offer discounted programs.

Additionally, the Corona Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act set aside $50 million to expand digital networks, and New York Rep. Grace Meng (D) has proposed $2 billion for schools and libraries to purchase Wi-Fi hotspots, modems and routers that can then be used by students and patrons.

Brandon Weigel

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