The City of Baltimore has taken a major step in confronting the digital divide with the appointment of the city’s first director of broadband and digital equity in local tech leader Jason Hardebeck. A recommendation in many studies dating back to at least 2015, this position has been a long time coming.
After being formally announced for the role by Mayor Brandon Scott on Monday, Hardebeck and I chatted Wednesday about where he intends to go with the position, his prior experience working on these issues and how the city government role fits in the ecosystem of digital equity and inclusion in Baltimore. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Technical.ly Baltimore: So, first, what’s your plan for the first 100 days?
Jason Hardebeck: That’s a great question. Ask a lot of questions. Talk to a lot of people. Use my ears more than my mouth. I tend to be more effective when I do that. In terms of concrete actions in 100 days, one of the primary goals is, by the middle of this summer, to be able to publish the City’s broadband and digital equity strategy. This is something that will be a work that I’ll be completing with the help of a lot of folks. It’s not so much about creating something from scratch, but a lot of it will be combining and building on current and past efforts.
TB: You previously worked in City Hall as broadband coordinator. So how is this moment and this position different, and why was it the right one for you now?
JH: So to back up, you’re right: My first stint in City Hall was as broadband coordinator, which was a brand new role. It was a recommendation that came out of the Smarter City Task Force that I was co-chair of. Then-Councilman Scott was on that task force. We published the recommendations in 2015, and this is really when we started talking about the critical nature of broadband.
Broadband was something that kept coming up throughout the conversations in the task force. It was a structural need that you couldn’t just put in a neat little bucket. So one of our recommendations was to create this position, which [then-mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake] took and asked me to fill to figure out how we could do this. I used to say that in that role [as broadband coordinator], I didn’t have a staff. I didn’t have a budget. I didn’t have any real authority. But what I did have was a namebadge and a license to lift up rocks, look underneath.
The reality is different today. We’re a year into a pandemic where everyone, absolutely everyone, understands the critical nature of affordable, high speed, quality access and that digital inequity has been exacerbated. It’s very visible. It’s not something you can ignore. And there’s a lot of interest in supporting efforts to solve that. It was always something that I think the mayor was thinking about, and he and I have talked about this issue for years and some of the opportunities to start addressing it. Like, how can technology and how can all of this activity start to play a more uplifting role in the city that we live in, and how do we start to include everybody in the opportunities that come from that? It starts with having access to the tools and broadband. And not just the physical access, but understanding how to use the technology, having devices to use and really being full participants in the digital economy.
TB: And you talk a little bit about some of the failures of the private sector and in terms of fixing this problem.
JH: This is also something that I think is important to understand. I recognize it’s easy to throw stones at the companies that are providing services. But…it’s certainly not my job to pick winners or to decide the best way to do this. I see my role as more about marshaling and helping support as many different efforts and initiatives as possible. There are large companies that will be part of that. There are small companies or projects or nonprofits that are part of it, or individuals. It’s really going to take a collaborative approach to tackle this.
It's not just about what the City can do on its own. Even if we had more dollars to do this, we still couldn't solve this issue as just the City.
In my mind, one of my primary roles is figuring out how we as the City and all of our resources and assets can go to support and amplify those efforts. It’s not just about what the City can do on its own. Even if we had more dollars to do this, we still couldn’t solve this issue as just the City. It’s going to take collaboration with every stakeholder out there.
TB: We’ve talked a bit about how it takes multiple different views and initiative to get this done because it’s a complex issue. To be more straightforward, what are your views on municipal broadband?
JH: That’s a great question and it’s something the mayor is very interested in exploring. And I am, as well. I think municipal broadband always needs to be an option. We cannot discount or eliminate municipal broadband as a way to provide connectivity to some, or all, of our citizens. If we had a competitive environment where we had multiple ISPs with different services, different price points, serving the entire city, maybe municipal broadband wouldn’t be necessary.
It’s not something that we’re entering into or I’m looking at as, that’s a given, or it’s the best option, but it clearly has to be a viable option, because if we can’t develop that or we can’t encourage that competitive environment that serves all of Baltimore equitably, then we need to look at municipal broadband as part of the solution.
In my mind, I feel like it’s very analogous to municipal responsibility to provide citizens with clean drinking water, sanitary sewers. For me, it’s table stakes for a modern civil society. Internet access is not a luxury. It is absolutely critical for every citizen to have that same opportunity to participate fully in the digital economy. It’s just the way the world works now. So we as a city need to to view it that same way. This is not an issue that private industry is going to solve. We can’t just rely on the market forces to figure this out. We have to be proactive in that.
Internet access is not a luxury. It is absolutely critical for every citizen to have that same opportunity to participate fully in the digital economy.
TB: Why is this new role as director of broadband and digital equity important for the city and why should this be something that’s in every city?
JH: Part of it is just recognizing that access and the ability to interact and fully participate in the digital economy is essential —critical — for every American citizen, regardless of socioeconomic standing or anything else. It’s just a given.
What’s important to me and is critically important to the mayor, is that those efforts around broadband are not just about the physical nature of broadband and the “what” — which I call “the what” or “the how” of creating access — it’s “the why,” and the why is digital equity. The “why” is about creating opportunities for everyone to participate and that we need to lead with an equity lens.
Having been in a number of different roles, not just as broadband coordinator, but very active in the startup and technology community for the last 20 years and in Baltimore, specifically, I have a pretty good understanding from not just from the soft side, but also the hard side — from a technology and engineering side, as well as the people side. And so that’s a big part of why I’m excited. This feels like what I was meant to do.
TB: And on that note, anything else you feel people should know?
JH: I am and have always been and will continue to be very accessible, [and] would encourage anyone who has thoughts or ideas or questions to get in contact with me. Like the mayor, I operate very transparently. The other thing I would say is we are beyond studies and reports. We are in the action phase. This is not about doing more studies or figuring out if something is important. We’re just going to start doing things.
I’m very much from a startup background. I’m used to action orientation and getting things done, whether they’re MVPs or building finished products. I would hope to continue that same mindset into this effort.
Donte Kirby is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.