Top Issues of 2021 Session: Broadband Connectivity for Public Schools

With the 2021 Legislative Session rapidly approaching, MACo is profiling some major issues that stand to gather attention in the General Assembly’s work. Here, we preview broadband connectivity for Maryland public schools.

Although each public school building in Maryland has Internet access and computers for student use, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a sudden shift to remote learning and the lack of affordable, reliable internet access will undoubtedly be a hot topic in the upcoming legislative session. Federal, state, and local action has been taken in order to address this issue by utilizing funds to purchase Wi-Fi hot spots, Internet subscriptions, building out a statewide wireless education network, among many other things.

The Department of Legislative Services explains what the standard is for high-speed Internet and what the Maryland Task Force found in its annual compilation of Issue Papers:

Broadband provides a connection of wide bandwidth data over a high-speed Internet connection. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) standard for high-speed Internet is a minimum of 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload. In 2019, the Maryland Task Force on Rural Internet, Broadband, Wireless, and Cellular Service reported that 98% of Maryland households have access to broadband service. However, in some rural areas, connection speeds were slow and did not meet the minimum FCC standard for high-speed Internet. As a result, the task force determined that only approximately 64% of Maryland households have access to high-speed Internet service. The task force also found that 72% of Maryland residents can connect to the Internet either at home or at work, but that over 50% paid at least $80 per month for Internet service, regardless of income or service quality.

Students in urban areas also lack broadband access. A May 2020 Abell Foundation report found that 52,000 Baltimore City households lacked any reliable broadband access. Furthermore, even when broadband was available, the report found that 35% of Baltimore City residents with an annual household income of less than $25,000 do not have an Internet subscription.

Local school systems have used their own funds as well as federal funds to deliver a variety of methods of Internet access to students in Maryland. They have extended Wi-Fi access to parking lots outside schools, provided Wi-Fi service on school buses parked at community locations including libraries and area businesses, and distributed individual wireless hotspots. Some local school systems have partnered with ISPs to increase the availability of Internet subscriptions for low-income households at a discounted rate and have paid for Internet subscriptions for students. They have also purchased digital devices, such as laptops and Chromebooks, to distribute to students. Still, seventeen counties reported that fewer than 80% of students in the county have reliable Internet access

MACo’s Legislative Committee voted at the September 16, 2020 meeting to prioritize broadband access as a 2021 legislative initiative. Weaknesses in current broadband internet service occur in every jurisdiction, due to both geography and demography – too many Marylanders have been left on the wrong side of the “digital divide.” The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of broadband connectivity across the state. Students have transitioned to online learning, many professionals have shifted to telework, and applying for unemployment or small business assistance programs often requires access to the internet. Affordable high-speed internet is an essential component of a county’s economic development, while lack of reliable broadband is a major barrier to socioeconomic opportunity, health, education, and quality of life.

MACo advocates for prioritizing funding to build out broadband access in Maryland, enhancing incentives and orchestrating opportunities for broadband deployment, and leveraging existing resources and infrastructure for broader use.

More background may be found in previous Conduit Street coverage, and in the DLS Issue Paper:

Harford Grants Additional $2.1 Million for Public School COVID-19 Expenses

Anne Arundel Announces New CARES Act Funding for School System

Conduit Street Podcast: 2021 Top Issues: Broadband Accessibility Act of 2021

New Report Shows 16.9 Million Students Still Without Home Internet Access

Hogan Announces $210 Million for Remote Learning and Targeted Tutoring

DLS Issue Papers: Broadband Connectivity for Public Schools

Helpful 2021 Session Links:

Maryland General Assembly website | 2021 Dates of Interest | Issue Papers
Re-opening procedures: Senate | House of Delegates | House Committees
Follow MACo’s advocacy efforts on MACo’s Legislative Tracking Database
MACo’s 2021 Priorities  |  MACo’s 2020 Wrap-Up