Broadband got its hearing in City Council, but improving it won't be easy - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Mar. 3, 2016 2:59 pm

Broadband got its hearing in City Council, but improving it won’t be easy

“Digital justice stares us in the face and I don't think we've responded adequately.”

The scene at City Council's broadband hearing.

(Photo by Stephen Babcock)

Improving broadband in Baltimore was the topic in the Baltimore City Council chambers on Wednesday night.

The city’s Judiciary and Investigation Committee voted in favor of a resolution that supports improving broadband. The resolution states that Baltimore is “in danger of falling behind” if “20 to 40 percent of residents do not connect to the Internet at home through wired access.”

The resolution is basically an announcement of support for improving broadband, and there was acknowledgement on the panel that the money required to improve internet service in the city could come from the mayor’s office or outside investment. Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who introduced the resolution, called for a renewed sense of urgency around creating a plan.

“We need to decide what we’re going to do, announce it and do it,” she said.

In the mayor’s office, the work to create a plan began with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s Smarter City task force, which led to a report. Jason Hardebeck was designated as Broadband Coordinator to bring the recommendations to fruition.

Hardebeck said he was supportive of the resolution because it raises awareness among the Councilmembers.

“The most valuable aspect in my opinion is that councilmembers have a direct path to their constituents and that’s where we need to be taking the discussion and understanding specific needs and opportunities,” he said via email on Thursday.

Here’s what emerged from the hearing:

1. Fiber ring

Speaking before the panel, Hardebeck pointed to a 50-mile dark-fiber ring that the city already has, but he said “significant investment” would be required to allow access to the ring.

“We have the start of what could be a very robust, useful and practical network, but it’s not enough,” he said.

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But some lawmakers were skeptical.

“At the end of the day, the City Council does not have the power to craft a budget for this. That lies in the hands of the mayor,” said Councilman Jim Kraft, who chairs the committee and represents Southeast Baltimore.

The investment for the city to expand that network and provide internet could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars for the city alone, Hardebeck said. Speakers throughout the night returned to the idea of creating public-private partnerships, such as the investment Westminster, Md., made in a network that set up gigabit fiber startup Ting to become the operator.

“Having the fiber is one thing. Having someone connect it and be the provider is something entirely different,” said Bill Cole, a former Councilman who is now the president of the Baltimore Development Corporation.

2. FiOS revisited

The speakers acknowledged that the question of improving broadband is arising because of dissatisfaction with the current offerings. Comcast sent a letter stating that it was set to introduce DOCSIS 3.1-powered gigabit service, but Baltimore does not appear on an intial list of cities rolling out this year, and costs have yet to be announced.

Another oft-talked-about service is Verizon FiOS. The service is available in Baltimore County, but Verizon opted not to offer it to Baltimore city and stopped expanding nationwide in 2013. Last year, a grassroots campaign by Working Families sought to convince Verizon to bring FiOS to the city.

But Verizon’s decision stands. Cole sought to dispel the idea that the city blocked the FiOS expansion.

“The City Council had nothing to do with the fact that Verizon FiOS doesn’t exist in Baltimore city,” said Cole. “The city didn’t stand in their way. They made a business decision.”

3. Economic development imperative

A major theme that emerged: If internet access isn’t improved, it could cost the city businesses.

Cole spoke of a lack of connectivity at the port. Clarke said businesses were leaving her district in North Central Baltimore because of connectivity issues. Emerging Technology Centers President Deb Tillett talked about the needs for startups and technology businesses.

For tech jobs, “The only place where it’s posted is online,” Tillett said. “If you don’t have access to online, you can’t get that job.”

“Digital justice stares us in the face and I don’t think we’ve responded adequately,” said Philip Spevak of the Baltimore Broadband Coalition.

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Stephen Babcock

Stephen Babcock is the lead reporter for Technical.ly Baltimore. A graduate of Northeastern University, he moved to Baltimore following a stint in New Orleans, where he served as managing editor of online news and culture publication NOLA Defender. While there, he also wrote for NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune. He was previously a reporter for the Rio Grande Sun of Northern New Mexico.

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