Link Baltimore's poor to a brighter future

May 12, 2006|By ALEC ROSS

Having access to the Internet has gone from being a luxury to a basic need.

Do you remember the fat envelopes you stuffed in the mail when you applied for college? They don't exist anymore. Today's high school seniors apply by going online and uploading digital files of their grades, essays and recommendations onto the university's network.

Remember when you got a job by mailing out rM-isumM-is on thick, beige paper? Those are disappearing, too. From 2000 to 2005, the percentage of Fortune 500 companies that would only accept job applications electronically grew from 27 percent to 77 percent.

Much of the dot-com hyperbole of the 1990s is proving true today. The Internet has fundamentally changed the way we retrieve information, communicate and transact business. Access to a high-speed Internet connection, called broadband, and the skills to use it are minimum needs for people trying to get jobs in our increasingly technology-rich, knowledge-based economy.

More than half of the 15 fastest-growing occupations require substantial technology skills, including computer software engineers, forensic science technicians and database administrators. Even in jobs that aren't in the technology industry, it's growing more difficult to be employed without knowing how to use a computer.

There is a movement in U.S. cities to help accelerate availability of the Internet by creating municipal wireless networks. What that means is the ability to pop open your laptop wherever you are in a city and go online without plugging in.

This is newly popular in cities that historically have had industrial- or manufacturing-based economies and are remaking themselves today for the 21st century. More than 200 cities, including Milwaukee, Chicago and Philadelphia, have efforts under way to create wireless networks because jobs at the ports, steel mills and factories are gone and aren't coming back. If you don't think so, try getting a job at Sparrows Point or Broening Highway.

This movement is now taking root in Maryland, most recently in Annapolis. Mayor Martin O'Malley is taking steps to make Baltimore a wireless city. But Mr. O'Malley's and the city's success or failure will have less to do with whether the network is built and more to do with whether there is a serious effort to maximize this Internet access. That means using such access to alleviate poverty and help schoolchildren in East and West Baltimore compete for the jobs that will be available to them as they leave school.

Mr. O'Malley should not try to build a wireless network merely to have another ribbon to cut in an election year or another box to check off in the category of "progressive mayor." What will determine whether this will work in Baltimore is the degree to which there is an intentional focus on the 23 percent of city residents living in poverty.

Residents of Baltimore's middle- and upper-income communities have their choice of broadband providers and the financial wherewithal to take advantage of them. The Inner Harbor is already wireless, and hot spots exist elsewhere in the city for people to tap away while they sip their lattes.

Where there is a current deficit of available, affordable broadband is in the large pockets of East and West Baltimore with high concentrations of poverty and children enrolled in public schools.

Because of that, Mr. O'Malley needs to go beyond getting a wireless network built. The city needs to support a technology-based anti-poverty program that focuses on helping families acquire affordable computers, build technology skills and access self-help online content.

The biotech corridor adjacent to Johns Hopkins will be an engine for high-paying jobs for people who grew up in the community only if they have skills that add value to the companies that locate there. Any job that doesn't require a broom or mop will require a computer.

Innovative uses of content applications are what can really demonstrate the impact of a wireless network. Kids trapped in underperforming schools should be able to go online to access the increasing number and quality of supplemental educational resources.

Baltimore's poor are by far the greatest consumer of government services. Instead of taking a half-day off work or after-school parenting time to stand in line for government services, they should be able to access them sitting in their pajamas in front of a computer at home, after the kids have been tucked into bed.

Bringing a wireless network to a city is fashionable among America's mayors. Whether this has a lasting impact in Baltimore will be based on whether it is built around an issue that is less fashionable: fighting poverty.

Alec Ross is senior vice president of One Economy, a multinational nonprofit that works to maximize the potential of technology to help low-income people enter the economic mainstream. His e-mail is aross@one-economy.com.

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