The lack of reliable access to broadband internet service for many in Baltimore, particularly the poor, has profound economic and social consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this painfully clear with its abrupt shifts to online learning, remote work, and telemedicine. A new analysis from Johns Hopkins University's 21st Century Cities Initiative says the city could move towards digital equity, with a roadmap of recommendations built on existing knowledge of Baltimore's digital assets and the experiences of other cities.
"Too often, the solutions [to repair the digital divide] have been sought in silos—for schools, businesses, public housing, and residential areas—when we need a broad solution that will serve the whole city," the report states. "The city needs a holistic plan to address digital equity that reaches households, the young and the elderly, and small businesses that can drive economic growth in the city."
A key aspect of the new report, released today, is an estimation of how much it will cost to bring high-speed internet access to the thousands of people in Baltimore who do not have it. The hard costs of extending broadband service are less than might be expected, likely in the tens of millions, not hundreds of millions, with the bigger challenge establishing sustainable support for monthly internet service.
The report's authors are Mary Miller, the university's interim senior vice president for finance and administration and a senior fellow with the 21st Century Cities Initiative, and Mac McComas, the senior program manager for the 21st Century Cities Initiative.
Key recommendations include:
- Create a permanent city Office of Broadband Authority and a digital equity director
- Provide free internet access to community anchors across the city
- Develop a sustainable internet service subsidy to attract internet providers to a viable customer base in the city
- Reduce barriers to entry to encourage private providers to build last mile service to homes and businesses
- Build on emerging citywide tech support programs through community engagement with trusted advisors
- Leverage more intergovernmental assistance for digital equity solutions
- Establish an independent Digital Equity Fund outside of city government to allow philanthropic support, led by Baltimore's private and non-profit sectors
The 21st Century Cities Initiative is the university's hub for research, teaching, and outreach related to urban economic growth and urban quality of life. Through rigorous data analysis and policy evaluation, the center focuses on how to align the incentives of the private sector and federal, state, and local governments to unlock the full potential of cities including Baltimore and other U.S. and international cities.