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Leaders Tout Short- And Long-Term Fixes For Digital Divide

State Del. Brooke Lierman describes efforts to address the digital divide at a press conference in Baltimore's Brooklyn neighborhood.
Rachel Baye
State Del. Brooke Lierman describes efforts to address the digital divide at a press conference in front of The Transformation Center in Baltimore's Brooklyn neighborhood.

Tarriq Thompson, a youth leader with the activist organization Free Your Voice, lives in the Curtis Bay neighborhood in South Baltimore with his mom and sister. They all work from home, and they all share his sister’s single wifi hotspot device.

“It’s her laptop, my phone, and my mother's laptop, who also has to work from home — she works for the state, as well — and it's been really hard for all three of us to maintain this,” Thompson said.

Thompson spoke Thursday morning during a press conference in which state and local leaders highlighted efforts to address the urgent need for internet access in poor neighborhoods, in Baltimore City as well as statewide. For residents of those areas, the inability to conduct daily business and learn virtually this past year has left many behind.

Some efforts are already underway. United Way of Central Maryland and RowdyOrb.it have partnered to install eleven hotspot towers in South Baltimore. Two towers are already up and running at City of Refuge and The Transformation Center in Brooklyn. The others will start coming up over the next three to four months, said Jonathan Moore, RowdyOrb.it founder and CEO.

The plan is to “strategically place them in safe places where people get food, diapers and resources,” Moore said. “So that way, when someone's sitting in front of a building that has a free Wi-Fi hotspot, they're able to get online, but also work with law enforcement to reduce loitering, as well.”

State Del. Brooke Lierman, a Democrat who represents South Baltimore, said the towers are a good short-term answer.

For a longer-term solution, she pointed to legislation she sponsored this year and Gov. Larry Hogan signed April 13. The law creates the Office of Statewide Broadband and requires the new office to come up with a plan by July 2022 that would ensure that 98% of residents have access to “affordable, reliable broadband internet” no later than the end of 2025.

“Being disconnected is not just an inconvenience; it's a disaster,” Lierman said. Over the last year, “people went from being able to go to the grocery store safely to having to order groceries online; from being able to drop their kids off in the classroom to having to search for a hotspot somewhere outside Dunkin Donuts or McDonald's so they can figure out what their kid’s homework assignment was; from being able to go see a doctor to having to do a doctor's appointment on their phone.”

According to an Abell Foundation report released in January, 520,000 Maryland households — 23% of homes — lack broadband internet.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom.