Vickie J. Gray enjoys life in Baltimore - the museums, the restaurants, the sports teams - but there are some places she avoids at night. Like the Internet, and trying to surf it when she arrives home.
"In my job, there's a lot that goes on after 5 and I like to check my e-mail, but it's painful, it's so slow," said Gray, 50, a marketing manager for the Saul Ewing law firm. Her condo at the Village of Cross Keys in North Baltimore can't get high-speed Internet service.
"If someone sends me an attachment, I won't even open it because it takes forever," she said. "Anybody who's lived in the city for many years as I have knows there are drawbacks, the car insurance rates, the real estate taxes, and this is another frustration. Technology is really slow getting here."
Baltimore dubbed itself the "Digital Harbor," but it's been more like the "Digital Hole in the Doughnut" for residential Internet service compared with the suburbs. That situation is starting to improve, though slowly.
Baltimoreans aren't as likely to own a computer as are suburban residents, and are less likely to use the Internet, according to a survey by a state agency that promotes technology. City residents who do surf the Web are almost exclusively connected by dial-up modem or faster digital subscriber line service from providers such as Verizon Corp.
Some neighborhoods lack any broadband option. Others, such as Locust Point, receive spotty DSL coverage because they're so far from a Verizon switching facility. City respondents were more dissatisfied with the Internet than people in Baltimore County or the state as a whole, according to the Maryland Technology Development Corp. survey.
Americans overall have been slower to shell out $40 or $50 a month for broadband Internet service than the industry eagerly predicted years ago. But adoption is picking up speed: One-quarter of Internet households pay extra for broadband, triple the rate in 2000, according to Gartner Inc., a research firm. The likes of International Business Machines Corp., AT&T Corp., Intel Corp. and America Online have announced new broadband campaigns.
The Baltimore region, in fact, had the third-fastest rise in broadband subscriptions among the nation's top 20 markets this year - 174 percent this year, according to Nielsen/NetRatings tracking service. Of 1 million residents in the region who use the Internet at home, about 300,600, or 29 percent, pay more to have broadband, Nielsen reported. Downloading a picture or song or Web page that might take minutes with standard dial-up service takes seconds with a broadband connection.
But to date, Baltimore's suburbs have fueled the growth, while city residents feel a disturbing sense of "digital divide" deja vu. They received cable television after the suburbs, too. Providers came first to the suburbs, which they viewed as more prosperous and easier to serve, with new infrastructure and spread-out developments, industry executives say.
The city's outdated cable TV system contributed to its lag in broadband offerings. Comcast Corp., which recently merged with AT&T Broadband into the country's largest cable provider, is rebuilding the city system it bought last year from TCI Communications for $500 million.
The project will enable the company to offer broadband service over cable modems, but will take another one to three years, said Kenneth Crooks, area vice president for Comcast. Limited tests in some areas have begun, he said.
The company has not decided which neighborhoods will receive service first, Crooks said, although he assumes that will be part of the company's negotiations for a long-term cable franchise agreement with the city.
Meanwhile, a Harrisburg, Pa., company, Flight Systems, has begun offering cable modem service, but only around the Inner Harbor and Canton. The company's owner started operating in Baltimore 10 years ago out of frustration that he couldn't get cable TV service for his boat when he visited the Inner Harbor. The company eventually buried 13 miles' worth of fiber optics downtown and now provides broadband access to marinas, condos and the American Can office and retail complex.
"TCI hadn't wired areas for broadband, and certain apartment buildings wanted it, which helped get our foot in the door here," said Mark Malpass, a company vice president. "We're never going to be a Comcast, but we thought we'd be a complement." The owner's instincts paid off: About 25 percent of its 1,250 cable TV customers now subscribe for broadband, too, twice the industry average.
"What you start to see happening everywhere, including Baltimore, are combinations of types of coverage. In many areas, you won't have a choice. You might only get cable or DSL or wireless," said David C. Troy of ToadNet, an Internet service provider based in Anne Arundel County. "The magic number seems to be somewhere in the range of $40 to $50 [a month] where the consumer is willing to pay for broadband.