Could Baltimore join the ranks of cities offering cheap municipal internet access? Would a publicly owned and operated broadband network help close the digital divide in Charm City?
That’s a major decision confronting Jason Hardebeck, just named Baltimore’s first director of broadband and digital equity.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott on Monday announced the appointment of Hardebeck, an experienced leader in local technology ventures. He was the founder and CEO of Baltimore makerspace The Foundery and executive director of the Greater Baltimore Technology Council and Maryland Business Council. Hardebeck also served as Baltimore’s broadband coordinator under former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
“Every Baltimorean must be able to participate fully in the digital economy to reach our true potential as a world-class city,” Hardebeck said in a statement.
The coronavirus pandemic and school closings have focused attention on the gap in Baltimore’s digital offerings – which heavily affect children and minorities – and leaders acknowledge that access to fast, plentiful broadband is key to the city’s future.
One of Hardebeck’s first tasks will be evaluating the costs and benefits of creating a municipally owned broadband network
Hundreds of communities nationwide have turned to their own taxpayer-finance networks to deliver internet access.
Proponents compare the practice to electrification projects in the late 19th century, and other utility construction in municipalities. If broadband access should be accessible to everyone, they say, it should be designed and delivered as a low-cost public good.
But critics argue that cities and towns aren’t good at projects of this type, and have been shown to waste money and produce little results. The private sector, and regulated giants like Verizon and Comcast, are better positioned to provide fast internet service, they say.
Still, some cities like Chatanooga, Tenn., have shown that a utility model is a boon to low income residents.
Hardebeck said in a statement that his approach to providing digital access and connectivity will be done “through a lens of equity.”
The digital equity director will be a member of the Mayor’s Executive team. The position is funded through existing resources, and will not require additional funding.
Hiring a director of broadband and digital equity was one of the Mayor’s first 100 day priorities. With this appointment, Baltimore will be one of the first cities with a digital equity director in the Mayor’s office.
The need in Baltimore is acute. A report by the Abell Foundation found that 96,000 city households lack wireline internet access. One in three households do not have a desktop or laptop computer.
The impacts of the digital divide during the pandemic have been severe. Children have been cut off from virtual learning, exacerbating existing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps. Many adults have been unable to work from home or access critical health information online.
Scott also announced on Monday the appointment of Justin Elszasz as chief data officer, moving the position from the Baltimore City Office of Information & Technology (BCIT) to a more central role in City government.
Elszasz has served as deputy director and analytics lead for the Mayor’s Office of Performance & Innovation (OPI) since 2019. He led the CitiStat team, which uses data to analyze and improve the performance of Baltimore City’s agencies. Elszasz also co-founded CitiStat’s Data Fellows program.
“Every day, I’m inspired to work in an administration that places data, equity, and transparency at the center of our work for residents, and am honored to continue serving the city in this new and broader capacity,” Elszasz said in a statement.
As chief data officer, Elszasz will work to modernize City government. He will collaborate with city agencies to improve data practices and promote data transparency. Elszasz will also launch a formal data training program for city employees.
He is also developing the city’s first Open Checkbook, which will allow residents to review city expenditures.
Something tells me that the unnamed critics happen to be on the payroll of Comcast and Verizon.
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