Special Report: Baltimore Builds Muni Fiber, Prioritizing Equity - Episode 496 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

This week on the podcast, radio producer Matt Purdy reports a story on Baltimore’s efforts to build a municipal broadband network that prioritizes equity for historically marginalized communities.

This show is 13 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below. 

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.



Christopher Mitchell (00:02):

Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and this week we've got something new and different for you. This is going to be a really cool piece of reported audio by Matt Purdy. Uh, it's about Baltimore and I don't wanna spoil it, but we hope that you really like it. And as always, feel free to send us some feedback, uh, and, uh, let us know what you think about it. Thanks, and hope you enjoy this.

Matt Purdy (00:36):

Before the pandemic hit two years ago, digital equity advocates in Baltimore say they kept banging their heads against the same conversation again and again and again.

Amalia Deloney (00:46):

You would have to explain to people why the internet was no longer a luxury. It was a necessity.

Matt Purdy (00:51):

That's Amalia Deloney. She's Vice President and Director of Digital Equity at the Baltimore based Deutsche Foundation, which funds community development projects around the city.

Amalia Deloney (01:01):

Covid really changed that conversation and obviously, you know, the place that I think it crystallized for most people was around school, you know, and children being able to access online schooling, um, during the Covid Pandemic.

Kimberly Vasquez (01:14):

So I went to one of the top schools in Baltimore City College. So city forever.

Matt Purdy (01:19):

That's Kimberly Vasquez,

Kimberly Vasquez (01:21):

Born and raised in Baltimore. My family's from Guatemala, and I'm a student advocate.

Matt Purdy (01:26):

Two years ago, Vasquez was a student at City College, which is actually a high school advocating for immigrant rights as part of a Latinx student group called Students Organizing a Multicultural and Open Society, or Somos,

Kimberly Vasquez (01:39):

And the pandemic hit and we couldn't even like get on a Zoom call. We didn't really know what Zoom was. Um, people were having internet issues, people were using their cellular data and stuff, but

Matt Purdy (01:49):

It wasn't just her advocacy work that was upended as classes moved online. And Vasquez and her two sisters studied from home. A problem emerged.

Kimberly Vasquez (01:58):

I have internet essentials, which is Comcast low income plan, and it was just not doing it for us when we all simultaneously had to be online. I don't know how you say in English, but it's like [inaudible] It's like a barrier. It is not just a barrier to me, but it's a barrier to my sisters too, and they need to go to school too, you know, and it kind of became this like battle of like who gets priority to their education.

Matt Purdy (02:26):

So Vasquez and Somos turned their focus on the digital divide. They successfully teamed up with a Baltimore city councilman to pressure Comcast into increasing the speeds for its internet essentials customers. Vasquez is now a freshman at Goucher College, a small liberal arts school just north of Baltimore, where she says, internet speeds are not a problem.

Kimberly Vasquez (02:47):

I'm over here like, you know, listening to music and as well on a Google Doc and sending emails all at the same time. I was like, you know what? This is like my second home right now.

Matt Purdy (02:57):

But the digital divide in Baltimore does not just run between households with slow internet and those with fast internet. An estimated 40% of households don't have broadband internet access at all. Unlike in rural areas in a city like Baltimore where nearly one out of four residents live below the poverty line. The problem is often not that broadband internet isn't available, it's that it's not affordable.

Jason Hardebeck (03:20):

The digital divide is really no different from some of our other structural challenges, right? The generations of disinvestment on this structural inequality that have built in and have been for, you know, over a hundred years.

Matt Purdy (03:32):

That's Jason Hardback, the city's first ever director of broadband and digital equity who was appointed last March. His new role points to just how much pressure cities are facing to bridge the digital divide. Hardback says, Baltimore's issues can't be solved by the private market alone. And so the city has begun to view the cables that deliver internet access as public infrastructure that the city should develop and maintain like sewers, water pipes, or city streets. We

Jason Hardebeck (04:01):

Have shared public roads, right? So whether it's a post office, u p s, FedEx, we, they all drive on the same streets, and that's exactly the same analogy to what we're talking about in Baltimore. We need to build a shared public network that allows multiple providers to use at a greatly reduced cost of building their own network. So it creates choice, it increases the options, and ultimately competition, which drives down price and increases quality.

Matt Purdy (04:29):

Last October, Baltimore City mayor Brandon Scott, pledged 35 million from the American Rescue Plan Act for phase one of a goal to build an open access city owned fiber network that reaches every home. As in many cities, Baltimore residents have essentially one option for internet access. In Baltimore, it happens to be Comcast. That's because it's incredibly expensive to build a broadband network. And so Comcast has a virtual monopoly on broadband internet service in the city. Hardback says a city owned network would level the playing field. He hopes to lease use of the network to private internet service providers who would compete for the lowest prices and best service. Baltimore is starting out with a few advantages that many other cities don't have. Namely, an extensive city-owned conduit system and 300 mile fiber optic network already being used by city government. But that fiber network, of course, doesn't run to every house.

Jason Hardebeck (05:28):

The real expanse in building that network is that last, everybody says the last mile, but it's really more like the last, you know, 500 feet or so, right? Getting down every street and then being able to go from the curb to every individual home.

Matt Purdy (05:41):

But before you can get fiber to every home, you have to get it to every neighborhood. And hardback says the city's approach to that is different than in a lot of other cities that are building city-owned networks.

Jason Hardebeck (05:51):

We're building it first in the neighborhoods and the communities that deserve it the most and need it the most. And that may be unique because that's kind of opposite of how most entities look at this. They look at it from an economics driven standpoint as like, where are the greatest returns? Let's start there first and then the cash flow allow us to invest in the rest of the network.

Matt Purdy (06:14):

Hardback estimates, the full buildout will cost between 700 to 800 million. Phase One of the plan will extend the city's fiber network to provide internet access to every public housing unit. And the city is partnering with anchor institutions to bring wifi hotspots to neighborhoods with low broadband adoption rates. Neighborhoods like Johnson Square on Baltimore's east side, Lillian Troutman owns a home in the neighborhood and volunteers to read to second graders at the nearby elementary school.

Lillian Troutman (06:42):

These kids, you know, they missed out, they missed out on a lot of learning that they probably would've gotten had the pandemic not hit, and if they had had more reliable internet.

Matt Purdy (06:54):

Troutman is a member of Mount Sinai Baptist Church, which has been in the neighborhood for more than 100 years. The church got a grant from the Deutche Foundation to build a computer lab and wifi hotspot

Lillian Troutman (07:05):

The future home of the community technology center. So this is the room where we will be setting up the computer hub.

Matt Purdy (07:12):

The city's fiber network just so happens to run very close by and will be connected to the church.

Lillian Troutman (07:18):

It ran right to our front door. <laugh>. Yeah, <laugh> was divine intervention. So they've done some of the work in terms of, um, running wires, you know, outside and to get into the church. They're waiting for some equipment that they need in order to, um, finish. And it takes, right now it's taking like six months to get it because of, um, shipping and things like that. We are experiencing,

Matt Purdy (07:44):

Once again, the last mile or 500 feet, as hardback mentioned, proves the most difficult to bridge, which is why as a stop gap hardback also wants to partner with private companies that provide internet over the air, perhaps companies like Rowdy Orbit,

Jonathan Moore (07:59):

I'm Jonathan Moore, founder and CEO of Rowdy Orbit

Matt Purdy (08:02):

Moore's Company started out training people with criminal backgrounds to learn to code, but pivoted to partner with nonprofits in the city to build wireless mesh networks that beam internet to 5,500 people in a half dozen or so low income neighborhoods. He sees broadband internet installation as an industry

Jonathan Moore (08:20):

Where they need people immediately. So we're anchoring ourselves in Penn North of San Tale, uh, as well as South Baltimore, and we're gonna be using those as training grounds to train people.

Matt Purdy (08:31):

Since Moore is providing internet to residents over the air right now, I asked them if he'd had any interest in perhaps running his operation off of the city's fiber network.

Jonathan Moore (08:40):

Oh, we would jump all over it. Remember, our end goal is to make sure that it's community driven, and that just takes one large piece out of it. Instead of training people to maintain the back end of a network, we can truly just say, okay, we can just focus on training people from the switch to homes and the switch to the receivers.

Matt Purdy (08:57):

But Moore says, the city's fiber network is going to face skepticism from residents

Jonathan Moore (09:02):

Soon as the city's evolve. People have questions because my relationship with the city, based on my neighborhood, if I live in a low income neighborhood, anytime every city res brings in a resource, it's about capital surveillance.

Matt Purdy (09:13):

The Santon Winchester neighborhood where Moore built his first mesh network is where Freddie Gray grew up, Gray's death after being taken into police custody, touched off unrest in the area in 2015.

Jonathan Moore (09:25):

We'll get a new police department and new police cars, you know, what else do we get? And so that is my relationship with the city. And so people have start asking, okay, how are you collecting this data? And what data are you collecting?

Matt Purdy (09:39):

In addition to winning residents trust, the city will need to come up with the rest of the money to build the network as well as firm up a sustainable operating model. But hardback says the challenges are surmountable.

Jason Hardebeck (09:51):

It's a solve technology problem, like, you know, and it's not outside the realm of a city's core competencies or to develop a core competency to operate a network, you are already doing it most likely, right? And so the private sector and, you know, kind of the status quo will want you to think that it is really difficult and it's not something that cities or towns should do. And I think that's just patently false.

Matt Purdy (10:17):

If the city does build a successful network, it could serve as a model. Once again, Amelia Deloney at the Deutsche Foundation,

Amalia Deloney (10:24):

You know, we're a community, a city that shows the kind of deep disparities, particularly the racial wealth gap that many communities across the country are facing. I think the fact that it's so acute in Baltimore that the two communities that disproportionately are impacted by the digital divide are black and Latinx, you know, means a lot. You know, it means a lot here, but it also, you know, is emblematic of what's going on across the country. And so I think, you know, if we get it right, starting with the fact that we can harness the power of a municipal network and really use the fiber infrastructure that the city already owns, you know, it could be an incredible success story, not just for the Northeast, but really for the country

Matt Purdy (11:07):

In Baltimore. For the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I'm Matt Purdy.

Christopher Mitchell (11:12):

We hope you really enjoyed that reported story by Matt Purdy, and we would love for you to share it around. So please, uh, grab a link to it off immunity networks.org or just share this podcast via, uh, whatever podcast type listening service you use. But, uh, please help us get that story out there and hope you have a great day. Thank you.

Ry (11:35):

We have transcripts for this, another podcasts available, muni networks.org/broadbandbits. Email us@podcastmuninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handles at communitynets follow muni networks.org. Stories on Twitter that handles at muni networks. Subscribe to this another podcast from I L S R, including building Local Power, local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter@ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate your support in any amount. Keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Hughes B for the song, warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This was the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.