The City of Baltimore’s digital equity framework revolves around the goal of closing the digital divide by 2030. It’s an ambitious objective, but a wealth of local organizations can help the city get it done.
In fact, they’ve already started.
96,000 households, or about 40% of Baltimore residents, were living without wireline internet connectivity before the pandemic. Since then, organizations like Project Waves, Rowdy Orb.it, and PCs for People have been providing devices, digital literacy education and job training programs to help bridge that gap. The city set aside $35 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds toward its goal of enabling full participation in the modern, digital economy for all its residents by “building ubiquitous, open-access fiber infrastructure,” according to the framework.
Baltimore Tracks, the 40-member coalition of Baltimore tech companies committed to improving racial equity in the local tech community, detailed its own recommendations for achieving these targets in a recent letter to Mayor Brandon Scott, broadband and digital equity director Jason Hardebeck and other city officials. The letter, which Baltimore Tracks permitted Technical.ly to review but declined to publicly release, details how to reach the lofty goals of not just broadband connectivity for Baltimore residents, but also digital equity, which would allow every city community to benefit from the tech sector’s successes.
Here are the coalition’s recommendations, as detailed in the letter: :
- Workforce training — The Mayor’s Office of Broadband and Digital Equity should contract with social enterprises that have a track record of recruiting, training and retaining underemployed Baltimoreans in technical careers to meet the demand for fiber optic, Wifi, and network maintenance technicians.
- Local Hiring — These newly-trained, qualified individuals can be then hired at companies contracted or subcontracted to lay the fiber network. There must be a mandate for those contracted companies to close the digital divide in Baltimore, as well as to hire and train local workers.
- Coordinated Advocacy – The city made a down payment on closing the digital divide with its ARPA funds, but the full cost far exceeds that amount. Baltimore thus needs to make a concerted effort to build partnerships and create a shared vision among our robust ecosystem of private and nonprofit digital equity advocates. This will help secure the federal, state, philanthropic and corporate dollars needed to close the digital divide.
We know nothing happens in a vacuum. The will for the full lockdowns of the early pandemic are gone, and Baltimore faces a gun violence crisis that tops Mayor Scott’s priorities, but Baltimore’s problems are ultimately intersectional. Digital equity isn’t the only solution, but it’s one that can have a domino effect of positive impact on the city.
“You can’t boil the ocean at once,” said Michael Castagnola, a Baltimore Tracks steering committee member, to Technical.ly. “Crime is the top thing on the agenda, but it’s not just the police that are going to solve crime. You need trees in neighborhoods, you need stable housing, connection to internet, access to public health and recreation. All of these things operate together.
“I don’t think you skip [digital equity] because there’s other things happening,” he added.
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.