The Enoch Pratt Free Library will provide free internet access to 50 southeast Baltimore households as part of an ongoing effort to close the digital divide in Baltimore City.
“We know that COVID-19 has exacerbated and exploited the pre-existing disparities, including the digital divide here in Baltimore City,” Mayor Brandon Scott said during a press conference on Friday. “In real time, we see our world become more digital and virtual, and we have left too many people behind.”
More than 40% of Baltimore households are unable to connect to in-home internet, said Heidi Daniel, president and CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Daniel announced on Friday that Baltimore’s library system has partnered with Project Waves, the Digital Harbor Foundation and the PNC Foundation to provide free, in-home internet to 50 families in southeast Baltimore.
Crews installed an antenna on top of the Southeast Anchor Library in Highlandtown, which will give internet access to 50 families whose homes are being outfitted with receivers.
Daniel said the Pratt Library and their partners hope to eventually expand the program to more people.
Adam Bouhmad, director and founder of Project Waves, said that in March almost 30% of Baltimore’s students did not have internet service or devices they needed to effectively participate in remote learning.
The United Nations in 2016 declared internet access a human right, but Bouhmad said people in Baltimore and beyond continue to be shut off from digital resources by corporate greed.
He cited Comcast’s new data plan, which will charge customers who do not have an unlimited data plan $10 for every 50 gigabytes of data they use over 1.2 terabytes, up to a maximum of $100.
Baltimore City Councilmembers Kristerfer Burnett (District 8), Zeke Cohen (District 1) and Ryan Dorsey (District 3) and Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition Director Tia Price sent a letter to Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, urging him to investigate Comcast’s plan for alleged price gouging which they said will fall overwhelmingly on low-income, Black and Latinx communities.
Comcast spokesperson Kristie Fox told Baltimore Fishbowl on Wednesday that “a very small percentage” of customers use more than 1.2 terabytes of data and that most people will not be affected by the change.
“Let us not forget that this divide falls on racial and socioeconomic lines, enabled by the digital redlining practices of monopolies like Comcast,” Bouhmad.
Laura Gamble, PNC’s regional president of Greater Maryland, said that supporting better internet access in Baltimore is “more than just a necessity” rather “it is quite simply the right thing to do for our community.”
“The digital divide is very real and, if not corrected, will have terrible consequences to our educational and economic health of our city,” she said.
Daniel said the coronavirus pandemic has made internet access even more crucial for children to participate in online learning, adults to apply for unemployment, and seniors individuals to learn about vaccination eligibility.
Bouhmad said access to the internet is a “fundamental human right,” especially during the pandemic.
“Information is power, information is a voice, and it’s a way to connect and collaborate with others during critical and challenging times in society,” he said.
As part of another initiative out of the Pratt Library’s Pennsylvania Avenue branch, the PNC Foundation helped purchase Chromebooks and hotspots meant for long-term lending to West Baltimore patrons.
Library staff are also providing one-on-one support to patrons who need assistance with finding jobs, resume writing, interview skills, career development and more.
“We are already seeing great success stories from our graduates of this program,” Daniel said.
The Pratt Library has ordered more than 500 hotspots and more than 100 Chromebooks to lend to patrons. The library system is also providing drive-in Wi-Fi at eight locations, and its three mobile units have been outfitted with antennas to provide free Wi-Fi connection to communities across Baltimore.