City has made little progress expanding internet access

In a hearing before City Council in June of last year, Baltimore’s then-chief broadband official outlined a vision to bring next-generation internet connection to one of the poorest parts of town, the public housing project Gilmor Homes, within a matter of weeks. He pitched the idea as step one in an aggressive campaign to establish 100 communal Wi-Fi hotspots across West Baltimore, all within a year.

“I used to say, ‘If the mayor said he wanted public Wi-Fi at Gilmor by next Friday, we could do it,’” said Jason Hardebeck, whom Mayor Brandon Scott hired in March of 2021 to be his director of broadband and digital equity, explaining in an interview last month that excess fiber-optic wiring at the housing complex would allow the city to string up outdoor internet service there almost immediately, at little cost.

But within two months of outlining his proposal for Gilmor Homes to the City Council, Hardebeck was fired from his post without reason given, he says. His plan to connect Gilmor Homes for public internet remains unfulfilled.

Two years since Scott established an office to close the digital divide, Baltimore leaders have yet to issue a plan showing how the city would meet that goal, which the mayor has pledged to accomplish by 2030 with millions of dollars in federal support. Proposals to establish hundreds of hotspot sites around town and to wire eight public housing complexes for top-of-the-line Wi-Fi remain in draft stages.

As of early March, a $35 million pledge Scott made as a “down payment” on his 2030 target had yet to connect a single resident to the internet.

At a moment of historic opportunity to correct entrenched disconnection in Baltimore, the dismissal of Hardebeck, an engineer and tech crusader whose resume includes suing Facebook over patent infringement, curbed the progress of Scott’s broadband office and its millions of dollars in federal funding. As the Scott administration continues to workshop its broadband plan behind closed doors, proponents have been left to wonder how the city intends to reach tens of thousands of households that still have no connection to the internet in their homes.

Fundamentally, the delay stems from a clash of visions over the city’s approach. Hardebeck was pursuing an unprecedented, New Deal-style buildout of a city-controlled network delivering fiber-optic internet to the curb of every home in Baltimore, an investment he said would allow the city to ensure high-speed service at more affordable rates to low-income residents than relying on the corporate giants that now dominate the market.

It’s a feat that has been accomplished by few cities nationwide, none of them as large as Baltimore, and would cost close to $750 million, Hardebeck told The Baltimore Banner. If the city could connect poor areas like Gilmor Homes to fiber, he contended, the rest of Baltimore would demand it, too.

But others say the city should opt for a more pragmatic approach, focusing on subsidized internet packages that have already helped tens of thousands of Marylanders since the start of the pandemic.

In a letter sent to Scott three months after the announcement of his 2030 pledge, two funders for the city’s broadband office cautioned Hardebeck’s vision risked becoming “another ‘Highway to Nowhere,’” lacking specifics and attainable milestones. After 16 months under Hardebeck’s tenure, the Broadband and Digital Equity Office had failed to produce a public plan outlining how it would resolve disparate internet access and had added just one additional employee — all while sitting on $35 million in federal funding.

Asked about the pace of the city’s broadband investments at a recent news conference, Scott reiterated that spending the city’s windfall of federal aid responsibly is more important than spending it fast.

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“You can either go quick or you can go right, and we’re trying to go right,” he said.

Hardebeck’s interim replacement, Kenya Asli, echoed the mayor’s defense, urging patience with a team that has been working to staff up and formulate a strategy of its own.

“I’ve been in Baltimore my entire life, and I hate to be that person that says ‘wait and see,’” said Asli. “But, unfortunately, I have to say just give us a little more time.”

Baltimore has long been home to one of the country’s widest gaps in broadband connectivity, with tens of thousands of households lacking an in-home, wireline connection to the internet. As libraries and schools closed their doors in the early months of the pandemic, parents in East and West Baltimore shelled out hundreds of dollars on cell phone data just so their kids could do homework. Expensive data plans often forced students to limit their time on lessons.

But at the same time, advocates felt the imperative of having a reliable internet connection in the home, at the kitchen table, was finally becoming apparent to government leaders. There were protests. A group of high school students went to the mat with Comcast, demanding faster speeds from the corporation’s cheapest internet package, and won. Between 2019 and 2021, federal subsidies helped cut the number of households without internet access in Baltimore to near 76,000 from about 96,000, according to recent findings by the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society and Baltimore-based researcher John Horrigan.

Scott looked to tap that momentum in November of 2021, when the first-term Democrat unveiled his pledge to close the digital divide by 2030, committing $35 million from the city’s windfall of American Rescue Plan Act funds to the cause.

Scott has spoken little in public about his internet access goals since. In recent weeks, the mayor has told reporters he remains committed to pursuing “municipal broadband.” Asked to elaborate at a news conference last month, he answered in broad strokes, likening internet access to a human right.

How the city delivers it? “We’ll see what that looks like,” he said.

Asli said the city remains committed to delivering fiber-optic connections to some of the lowest-income parts of town, first by wiring 22 unconnected rec centers and all public housing complexes with the high-speed infrastructure. A few million in additional funding secured by Asli’s office is going towards connecting senior homes with fiber, as well.

A city-sponsored campaign to sign up residents for the federal government’s broadband subsidy is also kicking off this spring, while the broadband office plans to invest some of its American Rescue Plan pledge into raising awareness for the program. The federal subsidy, which pays $30 toward monthly internet bills for those qualifying, has helped millions of households across the country stay online since the start of the pandemic. But many eligible residents — in Baltimore, more than half — still haven’t signed up, and the subsidy is slated to end in 2024 unless Congress extends it.

Hardebeck saw these kinds of subsidies as insufficient, temporary solutions that won’t incentivize corporations like Comcast, which has a 10-year franchise agreement with Baltimore, to take a more transformative approach to the city’s ingrained disparities. Still, Asli noted that her office doesn’t have nearly the funding today that’s needed to get everyone online.

“We have to crawl before we can walk,” she said. “For us, we are crawling. We are just beginning to toddle.”

In a statement, Comcast spokeswoman Kristie Fox said the company has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in building a network available to “every neighborhood and every street” in Baltimore. The city should invest its digital equity funds into promoting the federal subsidy for broadband access and providing devices to low-income residents, said Fox, “rather than into duplicative networks run by a local government with many other pressing issues to address.”

Many broadband advocates have praised Scott for committing a chunk of Baltimore’s federal pandemic aid to the gulf in local internet access. Thirty-five million dollars is far from enough to get everyone connected, but also a more substantial investment in the problem than many other cities around the country have made.

But the city’s sweeping, infrastructure-focused approach has also been a source of concern.

Alec Ross, a former telecom and broadband official for President Barack Obama, has followed Baltimore’s digital equity commitments closely and attended two broadband office meetings about the plan during Hardebeck’s tenure. Baltimore is betting on a costly infrastructure pipe dream that the city will never able to afford, much less maintain, Ross said.

The city should be dedicating more resources to teaching students the digital skills needed to succeed in today’s economy, Ross said, while building on the track record of the federal internet subsidy by funding lower rates from corporate providers, a model being pursued just up the road by Philadelphia. The Scott administration’s proposals to wire rec centers and public housing are “purely cosmetic” and “designed to tick some political boxes,” Ross said, rather than do anything that would meaningfully improve educational performance or economic outcomes.

Scott spokesman Cirilo Manego said the broadband office expects to unveil its long-term plan for Ross and others to see this summer. He added that the city is expanding its network to the communities in greatest need, but noted that allocations are also supporting digital education programs, tech support and funding to get devices to residents in need.

Critics of Scott’s record on broadband, however, also include those who have helped fund the effort. Three months after Scott announced his 2030 target, two funders, part of a group of local nonprofit foundations that had provided seed money for the city’s Office of Broadband and Equity, wrote to the mayor expressing concern about the new framework’s “lengthy timeline and lack of details.”

“Students and families grappling with digital learning, seniors struggling to access telemedicine services and underserved neighborhoods receiving no high-speed internet cannot afford to wait until 2030,” wrote Baltimore Community Foundation President Shanaysha Sauls and Goldseker Foundation President Matthew Gallagher, in a letter obtained by The Banner.

Maryland already has a goal to connect everyone in the state to the internet four years ahead of the city timeline, noted Sauls and Gallagher, urging Scott to show “seriousness and urgency” by setting immediate benchmarks.

“The new broadband network must not be another ‘Highway to Nowhere,’” they said, referencing the 1.4-mile unfinished expressway dividing West Baltimore, “wasting vital resources and further disheartening communities that have fought desperately for investment.”

Sauls is a member of the board of the nonprofit that oversees The Baltimore Banner. The Goldseker Foundation has donated to support The Baltimore Banner.

In late April, Sauls and Gallagher got a response. In that letter, Scott defended the pace of the city’s work to that point, noting that the broadband office was in the process of budgeting the city’s $35 million investment, had hired another employee and was preparing to post several more job openings.

Hardebeck was as frustrated as anyone by the lack of progress, he said, but he explained that he was mapping out channels to tap much bigger streams of federal money to pursue his longer-term vision.

Three months after the mayor’s letter, the former broadband chief was called into the office of Scott’s city administrator. Over a five minute conversation, he was fired. A few days after, the administration publicized Hardebeck’s departure and announced that it would be moving its Office of Broadband and Digital Equity out of the mayor’s cabinet and into the city IT department.

Some broadband experts and digital equity advocates said they were encouraged that Baltimore’s work seems to be progressing under Asli’s leadership. The city has been holding community input sessions, working with a consultant to evaluate the broadband plans of other cities and has completed site inspections at the 22 rec centers targeted for fiber connection, Asli reported. The interim broadband chief said the city has begun pulling fiber to those locations and should have them wired by the end of this year.

Horrigan, who expressed skepticism at “grand plans” to build out a Baltimore-wide fiber network, said the city deserves a bit more time as it works to develop a specific proposal for resolving internet access disparities. Before the pandemic, Baltimore trailed other major cities in broadband adoption by a wide margin, the researcher explained, but the last few years have seen an emergence of local expertise and mobilization around addressing the disparity. Current setbacks in Baltimore’s broadband campaign “are the kinds of delays that come with thoughtful analysis,” said Horrigan.

“They still have a little slack in my view,” he said. “But maybe not a lot.”

Despite indications of progress under the broadband office’s new leadership, some city partners continue to express puzzlement at what the Scott administration is doing and why residents aren’t seeing any impact from the mayor’s investment.

Sauls, of Baltimore Community Foundation, said in an interview that her concerns of a year ago remain largely the same.

While deliberations carry on, the concrete courtyards between complexes at Gilmor Homes, which Hardebeck had wanted to light up quickly with public Wi-Fi, were quiet and largely empty on a recent afternoon.

“I’m getting by,” said Lauren Brown, a six-year resident of the public housing development. Brown is pursuing her GED while her son closes out his final semester of high school, but the two don’t have a Wi-Fi connection in their apartment.

For now, Brown is sapping cell phone data to do her school work and loaning her own phone to her son when his data expires. The city’s proposals sound similar to promises residents of the World War II-era project have heard before, she said, like three years ago, when part of the complex was demolished and officials looked to the community for what they wanted built in its place.

“You just have a Gilmor Homes meeting and you talk about it and the rumors get spread around,” said Brown. “And it never happens.”