With more than half a million Marylanders reportedly lacking reliable broadband internet at home, Comcast announced plans Monday to install free WiFi hotspots in community centers across Maryland, D.C. and Virginia over the next several weeks.
The 29 “Lift Zones” will offer high-speed internet to low-income students and families, according to a Comcast release. There will be 15 access points in Baltimore, 13 in the D.C. area and one in Northern Virginia.
A large portion of Maryland households lack wireline broadband services at home, either because such services aren’t available where they live or because they can’t afford broadband internet. Roughly 23% of households in the state don’t have wireline broadband at home, according to the Abell Foundation’s recent “Disconnected in Maryland” report.
And 18% of all Maryland households lack a laptop or desktop computer at home, according to the report.
That lack of reliable internet at home has a disparate impact on people of color: According to the Abell Foundation report, 40% of households that don’t have wireline broadband access at home are African American.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted underserved and under resourced communities, with communities of color being disproportionately impacted,” Gabrielle Webster, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, said in Comcast’s announcement. “Being a Comcast Lift Zone enables us to provide a space in the community where young people can get and stay connected with reliable WiFi and take full advantage of educational resources and programs.”
The free internet hotspots are part of a long-term, nationwide effort by Comcast: the telecommunications conglomerate plans to install more than 1,000 nationwide over the next several years.
The announcement was met with skepticism from Gary V. Hodge, a transit advocate and former chairman of the Tri-County Commission in Southern Maryland. Hodge said access to the internet at home is what Comcast and lawmakers alike should be focused on.
“These folks are brilliant at public relations,” Hodge said. “I wish they would devote the same amount of attention to delivery of service.”
Hodge thinks the company, worth more than $200 billion, could be doing more to expand internet access in rural and urban areas alike. He thinks lawmakers should look at providers’ profit margins as a way to improve at-home internet access in the state.
“Rather than just sweeping up money out of the corners of the state budget to throw at the problem, one way to address this would be to look at the profitability of the companies that deliver these services,” Hodge said.
In a separate email, Hodge expanded on the relationship between local government and broadband providers.
“Up to now the State’s response has been to accept the companies’ claim that they can’t afford to extend broadband service to these areas, and then throw limited State funding at the problem,” Hodge wrote. “A closer look at the huge net profits of Comcast, Atlantic Broadband, Verizon and other providers, would provide insight on their financial capacity, and a justification for expanding service to underserved areas. The 23 counties have franchise agreements, but the providers, which are essentially monopolies in the areas they serve, have large lobbying operations and government relations budgets and actively court State and local policy-makers.”
John B. Horrigan, the author of the Abell Foundation report, told Maryland Matters that it’ll take cooperation between the private and public sectors to bridge the digital divide. Carriers that offer affordable wireline broadband plans, like Comcast’s “Internet Essentials” program, often struggle to get the word out to residents.
Last year, Comcast agreed to give away two months of free internet services for low-income families. It also stepped up its “Internet Essentials” program, increasing connection speeds to support up to three high-quality Zoom calls at once, a spokesperson previously told Maryland Matters.
Comcast emphasized in its Monday release that these likely won’t be the last “Lift Zones” in the region, with more currently under review. Here are the free WiFi hotspots that Comcast is installing in Baltimore:
- Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Baltimore – Brooklyn O’Malley
- Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Baltimore – O’Donnell Heights
- Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Baltimore – Webster M. Kendricks
- Boys &Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Baltimore – Westport Homes
- Carroll F. Cook Recreation Center
- Y After-School Enrichment at Goodnow
- Greenmount West Community Center
- Harvey Johnson Community Center (Union Baptist Church)
- Herring Run Recreation Center
- Langston Hughes Community, Business and Resource Center (Park Heights)
- Mora Crossman Recreation Center
- North Harford Recreation Center (E-Sports Facility)
- Oliver Recreation Center
- The Club at Collington Square
- The Weinberg Y in Waverly
And in the D.C. metro area:
- Boys & Girls Club – Dunbar Alexandria Olympic Club
- Boys & Girls Club – FBR @ THEARC (Clubhouse 720)
- Boys & Girls Club – George Ferris (Clubhouse 6)
- Boys & Girls Club – Richard England (Clubhouse 14)
- Byte Back
- DC Dream Center
- Faunteroy Community Enrichment Center
- Housing Up – Washington DC Shelter – Family Shelter 1
- Housing Up – Washington DC Shelter – Family Shelter 2
- Housing Up – Washington DC Shelter – Family Shelter 3
- Housing Up – Washington DC Shelter – Wayne Place Housing for Youth
- Little Lights Ministries 2
- Little Lights Ministries 3
- Recreation Wish List/Southeast Tennis & Learning Center