Efforts underway to address broadband access and close digital divide


As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold last year, school systems, healthcare providers, employers and government agencies shifted to virtual learning, telehealth appointments, remote work experience, government services and a host of other operations.

That shift quickly highlighted major disparities, focused primarily in rural areas and low-income urban communities, in access to high-speed internet service, known as broadband. The shift also brought public attention to the lack of computers to access the internet in many low-income households.

This “digital divide” is driven by several factors, experts say, primarily sparse investment by broadband providers in rural areas and low-income urban communities and the financial inability of some to afford computers or broadband service.

For example, the Abell Foundation’s 2020 Baltimore’s Digital Divide report noted that according to the 2018 American Community Survey, “96,000 households in Baltimore (40.7%) did not have wireline internet service, such as cable, fiber, or digital subscriber line service. And some 75,000 Baltimore City households, or one in three, do not have either a desktop or laptop computer. Most of these households are lower income.”

In addition, the Abell Foundation found in its 2021 Disconnected in Maryland report that 18% of all Maryland households do not have a laptop or desktop computer at home.

When it comes to race and income, the disparities are more pronounced. According to the Abell Foundation report:

  • 40% of all Marylanders without wireline broadband, or 206,000 households, are African American and the figures are similar for computer ownership of any kind (i.e., desktop, laptop, or tablet).
  • Marylanders living in the poorest households are about half as likely to have wireline broadband at home as high income households. Overall, nearly three quarters of all disconnected Maryland households are those below the state’s median income.

According to a 2020 report by The PEW Charitable Trusts, “Communities without reliable high-speed internet service cite a growing gap between the resources and opportunities available to their residents and those in communities that have a robust network.”

The federal government and elected officials in some states have taken notice of the disparity as funding efforts to address this “digital divide” have been signed into law or are being debated.

Earlier this year, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones announced a bipartisan agreement to allocate approximately $300 million of the $3.9 billion in federal funding that Maryland will receive under the American Rescue Plan Act to improve the broadband network in Maryland. The Maryland General Assembly also established the Office of Statewide Broadband to ensure that every Marylander has access to broadband services by December 31, 2025.

The Greater Baltimore Committee supported both measures.

On the federal level, President Biden announced on June 24 that he had agreed to an infrastructure deal with a bipartisan group of Senators. While details of the deal are unclear, news reports said it is a $1.2 trillion package over eight years and would provide about $579 billion in new investments in infrastructure, including broadband.

Under the Biden Administration’s original infrastructure proposal, funding would, in part, be used to give Americans access to affordable, reliable high-speed internet so they can fully participate in the modern economy and social mobility. President Biden has called broadband internet “the new electricity” and has noted it’s needed by everyone to participate in the economy and gain upward economic mobility.

While it’s not clear yet what level of funding will gain enough support for passage, it seems clear that lawmakers on the federal and state levels appear committed to addressing the digital divide, opening up opportunities for service providers and customers.

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