Today, the Maryland General Assembly is taking early steps toward addressing one of the most pressing issues facing our community: bridging the digital divide. The Maryland House Economic Matters Committee will hold a hearing on House Bill 97, the Digital Connectivity Act of 2021, which establishes an Office of Digital Inclusion in the MD Department of Housing and Community Development to ensure that every resident of the State is supported by high-quality broadband Internet service at an affordable price and has the tools necessary to use and take advantage of the Internet. Since March 2020, several grants from BCF’s COVID-19 Evolving Community Needs Fund have supported efforts to help students get connected to online learning, either by providing devices and hotspots to families, funding learning centers where students in need could go to get online, and/or providing technical assistance and digital literacy coaching to families in need. However, the pandemic has made clear that these stopgap measures are not enough to meet the digital access needs of hundreds of thousands of Marylanders – which go beyond remote learning to include things such as workforce development and telehealth. Furthermore, BCF operates from the knowledge that profound disparities in opportunity exist between people of color and their white counterparts; and we acknowledge the historic and ongoing role that structural racism plays in creating and perpetuating those disparities. We are committed to reducing racial disparities and fostering more equity and inclusion through our advocacy as well as our grantmaking and impact investing. In the case of digital access, we know that while comprising only 30 percent of Maryland’s population, African American households constitute nearly 40 percent of Maryland households without wireline broadband service connection. Shanaysha Sauls, President & CEO of the Baltimore Community Foundation, submitted written testimony in support of HB 97, and on behalf of BCF joined with 48 other organizations to sign a letter noting that “the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated pre-existing racial and socioeconomic inequities in Maryland. In an increasingly digital world, access to technology is vitally important for connection to educational curricula, job opportunities, health care, and relationships with loved ones.” We urge you to join us in this push for a more equitable Baltimore region with action and more information below.
A recent paper by the Johns Hopkins University’s 21st Century Cities Initiative entitled Achieving Digital Equity in Baltimore outlines the scale of the challenge and a roadmap to address the fact that 40 percent of Baltimore’s 243,000 households had no wired internet service, according to the 2019 American Community Survey, and one-third had no access to a desktop or laptop. Also this month, the Community Development Network of Maryland (CDN) released a research report, funded by a grant from the Abell Foundation, entitled Disconnected in Maryland: Statewide Data Show the Racial and Economic Underpinnings of the Digital Divide.
This year, every Maryland General Assembly House or Senate floor session, committee hearing and committee voting session will be live-streamed. You will find the link to watch the hearing live on Tuesday, January 26, 2021 at 1:30 p.m. on the House Economic Matters Committee webpage at Committees – Economic Matters Committee (maryland.gov). Once the hearing starts, we will also post the link on BCF’s social media channels to watch live. Contact your Maryland State Senator and Delegates to encourage passage of the Digital Connectivity Act (HB97/SB66). You can find your delegation’s contact information on the Maryland General Assembly website: Members – Find My Representatives (maryland.gov). Follow BCF on Facebook and Twitter for updates on our efforts to address digital equity throughout the 2021 General Assembly session and beyond.