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