Access to the internet is essential to how we live and work in the 21st century. Most of us don’t give this any thought, and tune in only when our access doesn’t function seamlessly. Yet there are significant disparities in internet access within communities such as Baltimore. The Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, in collaboration with the Media Democracy Fund, recently undertook a study to understand “how digital inequality manifests itself in Baltimore”. Looking at recent research, the Report highlights that Baltimore ranks 261st in digital access, with nearly 75,000 city households without any internet access. Their work resulted in six key findings regarding digital equity in Baltimore, three of which merit highlighting in some detail (the other three are fairly self-explanatory: (i) mistrustin government initiatives, (ii) digital literary education, and (iii) lack of access to hardware devices).
Siloed. First, according to the Deutsch Report, Baltimore has no shortage of well-intentioned initiatives. The survey respondents noted, however, “a lack of cohesive strategy and collaboration across sectors”. Unlike more successful cities, Baltimore lacks a “strong, empowered Chief Technology Officer or broadband coordinating council”. With city government, there has been transience in tech leadership and a feeling of territoriality, with different departments responsible for different puzzle pieces and no clear incentive to work together.
Market Dysfunction. Second, the Deutsch Report notes that price is the greatest barrier to access, and in other regions with competition, as access improves costs drop. Those interviewed highlighted the lack of internet service provider competition here, that “Comcast enjoys a near monopoly in the city” and with a new 10-year franchise, that isn’t going to change. Given the absence of competition, there is little conversation on how to shape other solutions, whether using city broadband assets as an alternative, to rethinking neighborhood access to school broadband, to coordinating community buying power, to subsidies.
Missed Opportunities. Third, the Report notes that Baltimore is in a rare position of owning many of the assets, such a valuable conduit, which “holds tremendous potential for innovation”. In addition, Baltimore has a large tech sector driving innovation and has massive development projects, such as Port Covington that are rethinking broadband access to their developments. We have the talent in town to implement alternative broadband technologies that are being successfully used in other cities. Similarly, while the city negotiates incentives with each developer, none surveyed could “cite any commitments that involved digital equity.” Broadband access to under served nearby communities can easily become an additional element of any development process.
While the Deutsch Report on digital equity in Baltimore tells a tale of missed opportunities and an absence of leadership (both public and private sector), it also sees a path forward. As with much about Baltimore, we’re not without the potential to change the digital equity landscape. The Deutsch Foundation and their partner, the Media Democracy Fund, have committed to moving the conversation forward in the hopes of spurring initiatives “to bring the internet’s promise to a larger segment of Baltimore. The city’s residents deserve no less.” They’re right.
With more than 30 years’ experience in law and business, Newt Fowler, a partner in Womble Carlyle’s business practice, advises many investors, entrepreneurs and technology companies, guiding them through all aspects of business planning, financing transactions, technology commercialization and M&A. He’s the pastboard chair of TEDCO and serves on the Board of the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore. Newt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.