ARPA Insight Stories: Bridging Baltimore’s Digital Divide: Creating a Community-led Digital Inclusion Effort

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The COVID-19 pandemic increased Americans' reliance on the internet for education, work, and health. With $1 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, Baltimore's Digital Equity Fund aims to close the digital divide by funding community-driven digital inclusion plans.

 

In 2018, Baltimore lagged behind the national average regarding digital accessibility. Prior to the pandemic, about 40.7% of Baltimore households, totaling approximately 96,000, did not have wireline internet services such as cable, fiber, or DSL. (By John B. Horrigan 2020) This starkly contrasts with 31% of urban households nationwide without wireline access. (Census, U.S. n.d.)  Further, for home wireline broadband, 73.3% of white households in Baltimore City have this service compared with 50.2% of African American households and 46.4% of Hispanic households. Among 33 cities studied, Baltimore ranked 29th for home wireline broadband adoption. (John B. Horrigan 2020) 

“The COVID-19 pandemic showed us that internet access is critical, basic public infrastructure. From our students to our older adults, Baltimoreans struggled to learn virtually, work from home, and access needed telemedicine on unreliable, slow connections and limited access to broadband.” -Mayor Brandon M. Scott

As the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a swift transition to online platforms for education and work, individuals without consistent, high-speed internet found themselves at a significant disadvantage. This digital divide hindered their ability to engage in virtual learning and remote employment and restricted their access to essential online services, issues the American Rescue Plan Act is being used to address nationwide.

Since Mayor Scott allocated ARPA funding, the Baltimore City Information & Technology's (BCIT) Office of Broadband and Digital Equity (BDE) team has made substantial strides in addressing the digital divide. Initiatives in Baltimore communities include:

  • Bmore Connected Campaign: Communications and community engagement to increase awareness of the Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides monthly discounts for broadband internet subscriptions for eligible households.
  • FreeBmoreWiFi: Baltimore City’s free public Wi-Fi network at multiple recreation centers.
  • Baltimore’s Digital Inclusion Strategy: a comprehensive plan to address the digital divide, outlining four goals to advance access to reliable, high-speed internet, modern technology and devices, digital skills training, and technical support.  

In addition to these accomplishments, Mayor Scott, through the BDE, launched the Digital Equity Fund in April 2023. The initiative supports the creation of community-led digital inclusion plans and provides funding for communities to bring those plans to life. The Digital Equity Fund, managed by the Baltimore Civic Fund, was initially seeded with $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding. Grant Recipients of the Digital Equity Fund, which currently supports 22 Baltimore-based organizations with over 27 digital inclusion projects, have started work on their programs for closing Baltimore’s digital divide.

Meet Moira Fratantuono | Development and Communications Director | Wide Angle Youth Media | Digital Equity Fund Grant Recipient

Through media arts education, Wide Angle Youth Media collaborates with and amplifies the voices of Baltimore youth to engage audiences across social divides. Since 2000, Wide Angle Youth Media has worked with over 7,770 youth across Baltimore City who have produced thousands of media projects about their lives and communities. 

“Digital Equity is embedded in everything we do at Wide Angle Youth Media. When you talk about digital equity, there is the question of access to computers and smartphones' components, but it’s also about having access to training to learn how to use it. Today, no matter what field of work you enter, you will need some proficiency in this technology. Even in school, you are expected to leverage this technology to make presentations or write papers,” Fratantuono said. “Our program, Baltimore Speaks Out, helps elementary and middle schoolers learn how to use technology by telling the stories they want to tell…and with ARPA funding, we have increased our reach to those youth by approximately 33%.”

Meet Billy Humphrey | Founder and Executive Director | City of Refuge Baltimore | Digital Equity Fund Grant Recipient

For 20 years, the City of Refuge, a faith-based organization, has been committed to developing programs centered on intentional assistance and meaningful relationships that help individuals and families transition out of crisis. 

“One of the things we are using ARPA funding to accomplish is to focus on computer literacy through workforce development and understanding basic computer usage and adding outside Wi-Fi access for our community members in Brooklyn, Curtis Bay, and Cherry Hill. Currently, we are supporting 15,000 households through our outside network,” said Humphrey. “We are focused on reaching immigrant and senior households, and we think we will train more than 100 individuals in basic computer literacy and work to get people Cisco certified.”

Meet Beth Watkins | Program Director | Asylee Women Enterprise | Digital Equity Fund Grant Recipient

Asylee Women Enterprise was founded in 2011 to provide housing and community to women seeking asylum in Baltimore. Over the last decade, AWE has served thousands of vulnerable immigrants of all genders worldwide and distributed over four million dollars in financial and material assistance. 

“We are hard at work using Digital Equity Funding to host digital literacy classes as a part of our Day Program. The AWE Day Program works primarily with asylum seekers and trafficking survivors, many of whom are new arrivals to the U.S. who've been here for less than a year. These classes help clients become comfortable using technology so they can begin workforce development, manage their finances, and learn how to navigate their community using public transportation,” said Watkins.

“ARPA funding will also help us enhance our programs. We are using this money to educate high-needs and highly vulnerable clients on avoiding digital scams. Without ARPA funding, ten households would not have received these digital literacy programs.”

Meet Will Holman | Executive Director | Open Works | Digital Equity Fund Grant Recipient

Open Space WIFI benchOpen Works is a nonprofit organization that connects Baltimoreans to manufacturing equipment, space, education, and Baltimore’s largest community of maker professionals. Open Works' programs start for Baltimore residents ages eight and up.

“We are using the funds to build benches with solar canopies for charging phones and delivering Wi-Fi to outdoor spaces. The first two have been installed at the 29th Street Community Center in Harwood and the Nate Tatum Center in Barclay,” Holman said. “We are building a total of 12 benches with funds from two different grants.”

One of the newly constructed Open Space benches, located next to the 29th Street Community Center, is pictured.

Continuing the Work | Expanding Baltimore’s Digital Frontier

Before being installed as the Broadband and Digital Equity Interim Director in July 2022 by Mayor Brandon M. Scott, Kenya Asli was the Director of Strategic Initiatives with the Baltimore City Office of Information and Technology (BCIT). Director Asli brings big aspirations for the future of digital equity in Baltimore to the team. 

“In my wildest dreams, one's zip code and income are no longer factors in the availability of resources to participate in the digital economy. A digitally equitable Baltimore is characterized by widespread access to affordable high-speed internet, digital skills training empowering residents of all ages, and equal opportunities for education and employment through digital platforms.

Achieving this vision involves:

  • Strategic investments infrastructure;
  • Community-based digital training initiatives; and
  • Policies promoting inclusivity in the digital ecosystem.

Collaboration between government, the private sector, and community organizations are also pivotal in narrowing the digital divide and fostering a thriving and inclusive Baltimore.”

Keep up to date with BCIT’s implementation of Baltimore’s Digital Inclusion Strategy by signing up for the BDE digital newsletter, Digital Equity Updates and News.
 

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