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Scott puts $6 million towards city-owned internet fiber, 100 public hotspots

Mayor Brandon Scott speaks at a Tuesday news conference, where he announced $6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to build city-owner fiber and create more than 100 public, free Wi-Fi hotspots in West Baltimore.
Emily Sullivan/WYPR
Mayor Brandon Scott speaks at a Tuesday news conference, where he announced $6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to build city-owner fiber and create more than 100 public, free Wi-Fi hotspots in West Baltimore.

The mayor also set aside about $100 million to be used to close budget gaps, should the pandemic continue to wallop city coffers. Another $10 million will fund the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Programs, an office Scott created to oversee pandemic stimulus spending.

Baltimore will install more than 100 free public Wi-Fi hot spots across ten West Baltimore neighborhoods and city-owned fiber at 23 recreation centers using $6 million in federal stimulus money, Mayor Brandon Scott announced Tuesday.

The Democrat touted the programming as making good on his campaign commitment to close Baltimore’s digital divide — the gap between those that have internet access and those that don’t — by 2030, calling it a down payment on open-access fiber across the city.

“The COVID-19 pandemic showed us that internet access is critical, basic public infrastructure,” Scott said at a news conference outside the James McHenry Recreation Center in West Baltimore. “We have to move towards treating broadband as a public good... and a necessity for everyday life in the same way that we deal with water and electricity.”

Internet access advocates brought attention to digital inequities as the pandemic hit, saying the divide creates barriers to education and economic equality by restricting access to remote learning, telehealth appointments, and applying for jobs and benefits — particularly for low-income communities and communities of color.

Some city students reported logging onto their classes from the parking lots of buildings with open Wi-Fi networks, while others racked up data charges on their phone plans to attend online school.

According to a 2021 report from the Abell Foundation, about 41% of Baltimore households

do not subscribe to internet access plans, while about a third do not have a desktop or laptop computer. The city’s low-income households feel the brunt of the digital divide: two-thirds of those households do not have internet access.

Those low-income households are disproportionately people of color, according to an analysis by the Corporation for Enterprise Development: about a quarter of Black households and one-fifth of Latino households live in poverty, compared to 8% of white households and 11% of Asian households.

The $6 million will flow to the Mayor’s Office of Broadband and Digital Equity, or MOBDE, which will also use the funding to hire a team of Wi-Fi deployers. MOBDE Director Jason Hardebeck called the funding a first step in providing every Baltimorean with expanded choices for broadband service.

“We have come to rely on an ‘always on’ connection and most of us take broadband access for granted,” he said. “However, in Baltimore, there are nearly 100,000 households who lack adequate high speed service in their homes and rely on mobile phones and rationing a shared connection for basic access.”

Scott pledged a total of $35 million toward programming to close the digital divide. He said details about the remaining $29 million will be announced early in 2022.

The first round of money will expand city-owned fiber cables to 23 Baltimore recreation centers. All 27 rec centers already have Wi-Fi; Hardebeck said the goal of building a public fiber network is bringing free and reliable internet access to all of the city’s public spaces.

Hardebeck noted the intent of the public network is to complement the internet service residents receive at home, rather than become a permanent substitute for a household’s Wi-Fi.

“More than anything, what we're focused on is primarily outside spaces — public buildings, public gathering spaces, parks, public markets, transit stops, that sort of sort of thing,” he said. “The real effort here is to provide everyone with the ability to use free Wi-Fi to complement what they're already using and to avoid using their pre-paid mobile data plans or their phone plans.”

Hardebeck said construction on the rec center fiber lines will start within a few months. He noted that ARPA dollars must be spent by the end of 2026, saying that city officials will develop detailed plans for a citywide internet network to be built within the next five years.

The recreation centers include Bentalou, Carroll F. Cook, Cecil Kirk, Crispus Attucks, Dewees, Ella Bailey, Fred B. Leidig, Gardenville, Greenmount, Herring Run, Hilton, James D. Gross, James McHenry, Lillian Jones, Madison Square, Medfield, Mora Crossman, Oliver, Patapsco, Roosevelt, Samuel F.B. Morse, Solo Gibbs and Woodhome.

The money also will be put towards at least 100 secure, free public Wi-Fi hotspots across ten West Baltimore neighborhoods, including Mondawmin, Upton, Sandtown-Winchester, Penn North, Coppin Heights, Druid Heights, Madison Park, Easterwood. Reservoir Hill and Bolton Hill.

Hardebeck said his office is beginning to identify potential locations for the hotspots, in part by working with Baltimore City Schools to identify where students were encountering connectivity challenges during remote learning.

He said his office will work to extend the range of each hotspot as much as possible but noted that each location will vary due to environmental factors, such as lines of sight. The hotspot devices will be commercial grade designed for outside venues.

“Our goal is eventually to be able to offer public Wi-Fi throughout the city in all public spaces,” Hardebeck said.

The announcement marks the mayor’s fourth major American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) initiative. President Biden’s coronavirus relief bill gave the city $641 million to put towards pandemic recovery and infrastructure improvement efforts. Scott has put $80 million in ARPA money towards health department programming, $50 million toward violence prevention programming and $55 million toward economic initiatives.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.