Economist: State Must Address Gaps in Internet Access

For some people without WiFi at home, McDonald’s parking lots have become a venue of last resort. Photo via Unsplash.com

To close the digital divide, Maryland should impose a “hefty tax” on internet companies that don’t offer service to everyone, the chairman of the Maryland Economic Development Commission said on Monday.

Anirban Basu, a prominent Baltimore-based economist who chairs the panel, said Marylanders who lack internet access are harmed in multiple ways — and are forced to “endanger themselves” because they must travel during a pandemic.

“If I were governor, I would impose a hefty tax on broadband suppliers, and that tax could be offset if they make investments in certain areas that are underserved by broadband,” Basu told commission colleagues.

“If we’re going to work remotely, if we’re moving towards a more digital economy [and some communities] aren’t connected, that’s not fair,” he added. “Because that means that people — to make a living out there — have got to endanger themselves. … We’ve got to do something.”

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) has provided at least $25 million in federal and state funds to improve urban and rural broadband since the COVID-19 crisis began.

But many communities still lack service, particularly on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland. And even when families live in neighborhoods that are wired for internet access, they can’t always afford it.

“It’s a huge issue,” said Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery), a member of the commission, in an interview.

“At a time when more and more people in our state are working out of their homes, we’re talking about virtual learning, it’s never been more important to put a focus on the lack broadband access in large chunks of our state.”

Basu said that internet providers have a disincentive to extend into rural areas because they aren’t likely to recoup their investment. Feldman agreed that it’s “critically important” that policymakers look at ways of closing that gap — particularly as health care providers move toward virtual visits.

“Utilizing tele-health options only works if you’ve got connectivity access,” Feldman said.

Tyler C. Patton, the vice president of the Maryland Rural Broadband Coalition, said the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased awareness of the gaps in internet access in the state and across the country.

“It’s a real issue,” he said. “Unfortunately, I don’t think there is a magic bullet to fix it.”

Patton said elected officials, policymakers and internet service providers are united in wanting to address the problem, “but it’s an expensive proposition.”

Unlike water and sewer service and electricity, the local franchise agreements that internet companies enter into with county governments don’t typically require that service be made available to all.

“It’s an unregulated un-utility utility,” Patton said. “So I think that you would have to get down into the weeds” to change things.

Commerce Secretary Kelly M. Schulz told the commission that the state is making a concerted push to close gaps in broadband access.

“It’s not a conversation that’s going to have a simple answer,” she said. “It’s on a lot of people’s minds.”

“We’re trying to put as much money as we can into a problem that seems to grow the more we try to fix it.”

By Bruce DePuyt

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