(Photo by Stephen Babcock)
As part of a $3.9 billion allocation of COVID-19 relief funding from the latest federal law, Maryland is committing $300 million toward broadband and digital equity initiatives, state leaders announced on Wednesday.
Nationally, the American Rescue Plan Act that was championed by President Joe Biden includes funding for states. In Maryland, the package is part of an agreement reached between Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, and the legislative leaders of the Maryland General Assembly, who are Democrats. In a state where, according to a recent Abell Foundation report, 23% of homes lack wireline home broadband services, the leaders are prioritizing digital connectivity alongside alongside unemployment insurance, schools, transportation and assistance programs for the hardest-hit by the pandemic and economic downturn.
5. $300 million will be dedicated to a game-changing broadband technology initiative, including $128 million to improve network infrastructure, $75 million for service fee and device subsidies, and $45 million for municipal broadband grants.
— Mike Ricci (@riccimike) March 31, 2021
“The question isn’t how much it’ll cost to bridge the digital divide, the question is how much will it cost if we don’t act right now,” State Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said at a press conference to announce the funding. “Who will be left out of the opportunities of today and tomorrow if we don’t have urgency around this issue?”
Ferguson counted those who don’t have digital insecurities as the lucky ones. He noted it never should have been “luck or ZIP code” that left many Marylanders worrying about how to afford an internet bill or what to do with unreliable service too slow to use for work, school or safe social interaction.
“For far too many Marylanders, this transition has not been easy and has not been possible,” said Ferguson — “not from any fault of Marylanders or lack of desire, but because the technical infrastructure, knowledge, and access has not been available.”
The bill breaks measures to address the digital divide into three areas: physical infrastructure, affordability and human infrastructure. It has specific funds for broadband infrastructure and deployment, supporting municipal broadband access in the state. On affordability, it provides money for subsidizing broadband service fees and devices. And acknowledging that the digital divide requires more than just the hardware, another set of funds targeted at adoption will go toward a community-centered tech education division within the University System of Maryland, among other programs to support and educate users. (Find a full breakdown of the funding below.)
The need to get everyone online has become more acute in the pandemic, as school, work and services have shifted online and community centers have closed. At the same time, there’s new acknowledgement that the gaps don’t fall equally. As the Abell Foundation report noted, “the weight of these gaps fall heavily in urban and metro areas and among African American households,” with African American households representing 40% of those households without connectivity.
Claudia Wilson Randall, executive director of the Community Development Network of Maryland (CDN), said the issue rose to the top of the legislative agenda for her organization, after it became clear that a lack of connectivity was hampering community development orgs in their efforts to deliver services. CDN then commissioned the Abell Foundation report, and it has been advocating for bills such as the Digital Connectivity Act, which would create a statewide digital inclusion office. In the meantime, Randall has recognized that along with schools and economic opportunity, expanding connectivity is required for seniors to access services and getting access to court dates.
"Baltimore's digital divide, in terms of subscriptions to service at home, is the largest in the state, so the proposed funding to support adoption has the potential to make a big difference in the city."
“This investment helps move all of that conversation forward,” she said. “I’m excited because the state heard that message from everyone that in order for us to get an equitable recovery for the state, we’ve got to address this.”
While it is statewide, the funding also stands to help Baltimore city, where 96,000 homes lack wireline broadband, according to a separate report Abell Foundation report on the city’s digital divide .
“The new proposal from the state of Maryland helps Baltimore through significant funding for subsidies for monthly internet services and computing devices for low-income households,” said John B. Horrigan, a senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute who also authored the Baltimore-focused Abell report. “Baltimore’s digital divide, in terms of subscriptions to service at home, is the largest in the state, so the proposed funding to support adoption has the potential to make a big difference in the city.”
The exact allocations and how money will flow to specific projects and jurisdictions haven’t yet been finalized, but stand to add resources at a time when city’s new administration under Mayor Brandon Scott is putting a priority on these issues.
“We don’t yet know all the details, but the potential for some of those funds to come to Baltimore would be a significant step towards our efforts to expand the City’s broadband infrastructure and support the shared goals of the administration, BDEC, and others working to close the digital divide,” said Jason Hardebeck, Baltimore City’s recently named director of broadband and digital equity. “This could be the spark for transformative change.”
With the spotlight on the issue, there has been significant organizing among the nonprofit, startup and philanthropic community, as well. More than 50 organizations joined the Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition in the wake of the pandemic. With funding at the state level and continued focus expected from the Biden administration in the form of a $100 billion commitment as part of the president’s proposed infrastructure bill. To underscore where Baltimore sits in the discussion, a New York Times article on the plan published Thursday prominently features students from the city who have struggled to get online, and community ISP Project Waves, which is setting up mesh networks as a solution.
“The digital divide is a solvable problem that requires investments in infrastructure, affordability, and adoption. We are elated to hear that the State will allocate $300 million toward bridging the digital divide,” said Tia Price, director of the Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition. “Solving the digital divide cannot be done in silos — it requires collaboration. We look forward to joining forces with the State to ensure that all Marylanders, particularly those who are the most disconnected, such as Baltimore City residents, are afforded the technology capacity to fully participate in our society, democracy, and economy.”
The issues have caused real damage, and they didn’t arrive with the pandemic, but rather were exacerbated by the inequality that is already here. So it will require change at the systemic level. It won’t be solved with one round of funding or one project, but the network effect involved in creating change is a source of some hope.
“I think that what this is doing is saying, we are going to change the underlying systems and really tackle this in a way that we can hopefully cont to build on,” said Digital Harbor Foundation Executive Director Andrew Coy, who has worked on these issues from a policy and community stance, of the new funding. “It can hopefully chip away in a really meaningful manner at some of these persistent gaps in the digital divide.”
Here’s a look at the funding allocation, per Coy:
- $97M for broadband infrastructure and deployment
- $5M to support local community-based solutions and gap networks
- $23M in rural broadband and digital connectedness
- $30M in broadband infrastructure and deployment focused on rural areas
- $5M in grants and loans to local governments to support private providers for improvements to broadband access
- $45M for municipal broadband efforts
- $45M to provide subsidized funds for monthly broadband service fees
- $30M for technology devices for qualified Maryland households
- $4M for a new University System of Maryland division for supporting, training and developing curriculum around bridging the digital divide
- $2M for digital navigator programs
- $2M for the digital inclusion fund
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