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Master plan will look at developing a municipal broadband network in Baltimore

At a City Council hearing, leaders discussed the role of city government in providing internet access.

Broadband. (Photo by Flickr user Gavin St. Ours, used under a Creative Commons license)
Updated at 2:30 p.m., 1/18/19.

A master plan that’s being developed for Baltimore city government is looking to lay out strategies surrounding  municipal broadband in the city, officials told a City Council committee this week.

As the city seeks to improve capabilities that will allow for increased connectivity and improved city systems, it must also have a role in ensuring the infrastructure is there to support it, Baltimore City CIO Frank Johnson said at a hearing on Wednesday night. The city contracted consulting firm CTC Technology and Energy, to look at how the city itself can play a role in providing internet service

“All of these things are critically dependent on a robust citywide network. If you’re following the national dialogue on this, it’s obvious that communities like ours cannot be solely dependent on industry to build, operate and manage that capability for us. We need to take much more control of our communications destiny if we want to achieve everything outlined in this plan,” Johnson said, referring to a separate, five-year tech transformation plan released by the Baltimore City Office of Information and Technology last year.

The broadband study is not yet complete, with a final version expected in the spring. It was officially called for in a resolution as part of a series of measures on digital connectivity introduced last year by City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young. Others focused on the city’s conduit system, and net neutrality.

At the hearing, CTC President Joanne Hovis discussed key points of the plan.

“We are particularly focused on dual goals of economic opportunity and inclusion, and what digital infrastructure means for those goals,” said Hovis.

The work so far is prioritizing how fiber can play a role in extending internet service to residents who currently struggle to afford it, as well as small businesses that currently have lower levels of service, Hovis said. CTC is also looking at existing fiber assets, and plans to make recommendations regarding how they can be used and maximized. Hovis said the city could also play a role in piloting new 5G technology in low-income areas or public housing. They’re also looking to make recommendations around a business plan and financing for such a network. The master plan that’s ultimately produced will lay out options, and include an evaluation of benefits and risks.

As Councilmembers referenced during the hearing, it’s not the first time broadband plans have been discussed by the City Council. There were recommendations in a 2015 report from the Smarter City task force, and they’ve looked at the city’s assets and needs. Johnson said this master plan, as well as additional work currently underway by a community-based council on smart cities, is taking all past plans into consideration and ultimately aiming to work on how the strategies can be implemented.

During public comments, speakers pointed to a desire to have more choice of broadband providers in the city, and increase access.

“As we talk about this, we need to connect it to the people. People are really unhappy with the current state. There are certainly other importantly issues in this city, which I recognize, but they’re all actually connected to broadband,” said Philip Spevak, who has advocated for alternatives to existing options as the founder of the Baltimore Broadband Coalition. Spevak also talked about the importance of improving broadband for healthcare, turning words to action. Having seen a variety of city efforts to address the issue (over four city CIOs), Spevak said he is “most optimistic” about the current process that’s underway.

Stressing the importance of spreading access for all citizens, Adam Bouhmad talked about the role of net neutrality in the conversation.

“As we continue the multi-pronged effort to provide access to these homes, I think we must also ensure that the people also have access to services online, and it’s not necessarily the companies that they pay to get online that control what applications, what websites they have access to,” he said.

Companies: Baltimore City Council

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