The Baltimore City Council on Monday gave final passage to a measure that would amend the city’s charter to prevent the sale of its underground conduit system, sending it to the mayor’s desk for approval or veto.
If approved by voters, the charter amendment would prohibit the privatization of Baltimore’s underground conduit system for cables, wires and similar facilities.
Passage by the council comes a couple years after the conduit became one area of focus for current Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young as he set out to explore municipal broadband while serving as the legislative body’s president. Young introduced a series of resolutions in 2018 that included a hearing on the conduit system. A year later, the charter amendment was one of a pair of measures introduced in 2019 focused on the conduit system, which Young positioned with an eye toward broadband. A second bill proposed at that time, which updated laws and penalties governing the conduit system, passed in June 2019.
Young has also become mayor since the measure was introduced, and now has several weeks in his term remaining before mayor-elect — and current city council president —Brandon Scott is sworn in on December 8. He’ll now have the option to sign or veto the charter amendment. Young’s office did not immediately return comment on whether he will support the amendment now.
The century-old underground conduit system is a 700-mile network of ducts that house wiring for electric and communications services. Companies such as BGE and Comcast use the conduit for infrastructure, but it is owned by the city.
When it comes to opening up access to the internet, leaders have pointed to the conduit system as a potential tool to help expand services like fiber broadband service. Having a conduit system in place would provide a place to run fiber, whether the city sets up its own network, or companies with fiber service like Verizon and Google come in. It could also help with costs of setting up infrastructure. Analysts estimated that Google Fiber’s nationwide expansion plan was $3,000-$8,000 per home. There are 238,897 households in Baltimore according to data reported by the city in 2015. So on the low end it could cost over $700 million. On the high end, that would be a figure approaching $1 billion.
If Young supports the charter amendment preventing privatization, it must be approved by voters in a future election to be enacted, since it is a change to the city’s central governing document. In 2018, a similar measure banning privatization of the city’s water system was approved by voters.
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.