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Scott Pledges $35M To Close Baltimore's 'Digital Divide,' Expand Public Internet Access

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Saying tens of thousands of Baltimore households lack of reliable internet access, Mayor Brandon Scott on Tuesday announced the first phase of a $35 million plan to close the "digital divide."

While the eventual goal is to expand public internet access throughout the city, Scott said the first piece of the plan involves spending $6 million in federal funds to bring broadband connectivity to 23 recreation centers and add 100 WiFi hotspots in West Baltimore neighborhoods.

"The COVID-19 pandemic showed us that internet access is critical, basic infrastructure," the mayor said. "From our students to our older adults, Baltimoreans struggled to learn virtually, work from home and accessed needed telemedicine on unreliable, slow connections and limited access to broadband."

Jason Hardebeck, director of the Mayor's Office of Broadband and Digital Equity, estimated that nearly 100,000 households throughout the city lack adequate internet access. Instead, Hardeback said, families either share basic connections or rely on their smartphones to connect to the internet.

"It is the proper role of government to ensure that all citizens have equal access to the basics necessary to thrive in modern civil society. Like clean water and public roads, broadband access has become one of those essential services," Hardebeck said. "These initial investments in the city's digital infrastructure will help expand access throughout some of our most underserved neighborhoods."

The hope is to close the city's "digital divide," or inequality in internet access, by 2030, the mayor said. But he and Hardeback both acknowledged that the ambitious effort won't happen overnight.

Initially, the city plans to expand fiber access to the 23 rec centers that aren't already connected to the city's network, providing service to residents both inside and outside those facilities.

Additionally, the city plans to install 100 secure WiFi hotspots in 10 neighborhoods throughout West Baltimore, including: Mondawmin, Reservoir Hill, Upton, Sandtown-Winchester, Penn North, Druid Heights, Madison Park, Coppin Heights, Easterwood, and Bolton Hill.

Besides that, the city will also be hiring a digital equity coordinator and staff to oversee installation and operation of the new infrastructure and to provide technical support.

"Today's announcement is a down payment on our commitment to invest in an expansion of Baltimore's digital infrastructure, while ensuring that our most disconnected neighborhoods are served first and foremost," Hardeback said.

Scott did not discuss how the remaining $29 million would be spent, saying his administration would release details on plans for that funding in early 2022.

Tierra Chambers is a Baltimore resident and mother of three school-aged children. She said they are all virtually inclined and often need the internet for educational and social resources. She was excited to hear the city will soon be providing the service, free of charge in some locations near her home.

"And a high speed one at that! That would help us a lot and would help the children also, they would have somewhere to come so they can do the things they need to do," she said.

Chambers said the investment is worth it as much of the future looks to involve some sort of virtual learning or work space, now that the pandemic has shown many people what is possible with internet access.

"I think it is something that the city needs because if everything's about to go virtual anyway, then that's what we need," she said.

Tuesday's announcement marks Scott's latest on how the city plans to allocate the federal funding it's receiving through the American Rescue Plan Act.

Previously, he said the city would spend $80 million on the city's COVID-19 response, $55 million on workforce development and economic recovery efforts, and $50 million on violence prevention.

City residents are invited to weigh in on the blueprint for the city's digital equity plan by going to the city's website.

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