Community group lobbying for fiber Internet investment in Baltimore

  • Spools of fiber optic cable are stored in a warehouse in Elkridge.
Spools of fiber optic cable are stored in a warehouse in Elkridge. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
October 13, 2014|By Scott Dance | The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore was among dozens of disappointed cities when Google announced it had picked Kansas City, Mo., for a high-speed fiber-optic data network in 2011, but officials vowed to continue fighting for fiber nonetheless.

Nearly four years later, some are disappointed by the lack of progress— and want to show that some of the fervor that wooed Google remains, waiting for new, affordable options for fast Internet service.

A community group based in North Baltimore has attracted more than 900 people and nearly $17,000 in donations to a crowdsourced campaign, the Baltimore Broadband Coalition. Backers aim to demonstrate untapped demand for companies that might invest in a fiber network for Baltimore, possibly alongside city officials who have spent the past two years exploring options and expect to share their findings by year's end.

Networks made of fiber-optic cable are capable of carrying significantly more information at faster speeds than traditional copper-wire networks. Fiber broadband can deliver speeds of as much as a gigabit per second. The fastest speed Comcast lists on its website for Baltimore customers is 150 megabits per second, though a spokeswoman said it offers 505 megabits per second.

While the campaign doesn't offer any guarantee of new Internet service options, organizers said they hope it will help draw attention to the region's "digital divide" and eventually spur investment in fiber here.

"This is an advocacy effort to help to change what has been the city's plan, or lack of plan, on broadband," said Philip Spevak, one of the campaign's organizers. "Those numbers will help to motivate the city."

The coalition launched in July on a website called crowdfiber.com, where half a dozen other communities have hosted or are still running similar campaigns. The concept is similar to that of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, which allows artists, musicians or small-business owners to collect investments of any amount for a project, directly from those who want to see it made.

Backers of the broadband campaign put up $10 each, and the aim is to draw a critical mass of supporters from all corners of the city — in 69 different neighborhoods. The organizers set a goal of attracting 20 percent of owner-occupied households and 5 percent of rental units in each neighborhood, considering that to be a benchmark that might be enough to be worth fiber companies' while.

Spevak said organizers aren't sure yet how they will use the money raised, but said it could eventually go toward a request for proposals for network investments.

So far, only the northern neighborhoods of Poplar Hill, Roland Park, Keswick and Roland Springs have surpassed their goals — the effort began at a community meeting in a Roland Park basement. But organizers recently began making the rounds to community association meetings around the city, most recently in Mount Royal and Federal Hill.

Their message: The rate of broadband subscription in the city is lower than in the suburbs and the service costs as much as $500 more per year. The group estimates that 20 percent to 40 percent of Baltimore residents lack an Internet connection at home. Telecommunications giant Comcast has estimated that as many as 75 percent to 80 percent of low-income residents lack broadband access.

"Many other cities throughout the nation are making rapid progress installing fiber broadband infrastructure and services," wrote Spevak and partners Stan Wilson and Anthony Gill in an op-ed column in The Baltimore Sun in July. "It's time for the citizens of Baltimore City to stop paying more money for less and work together to bring faster and cheaper Internet to our homes and businesses."

But they acknowledge they need cooperation from the city, which has lost its past two chief information officers to scandal. Before the last one left, the city approved a $157,000 contract with consultant Magellan Advisors in August 2013 to study options for spurring broadband investment — as well as mapping out and valuing existing resources, including a ring of fiber that loops around the city for use in first-responder communications and city-owned conduits through which more fiber could flow.

Some cities, like Chattanooga, Tenn., have launched municipally owned networks run like utilities, while others have explored nonprofit networks or public-private partnerships.

Acting Chief Technology Officer Jerome Mullen said the results of Magellan's study are expected by the end of this year and could color future efforts to consider those various models. While municipal networks have been successful in some communities, for example, it's not clear how well it would work in a city of Baltimore's size, he said. Magellan officials declined to comment.

"They're analyzing the market in Baltimore to try to figure out, is there a demand for certain types of services that could leverage these assets? What are business models the city could use?" Mullen said.

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