Maryland officials are ramping up their efforts to close the state’s digital divide, with Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and Democratic legislative leaders announcing a new program and workgroup aimed at making broadband more accessible to Marylanders Friday.
Hogan, alongside House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) announced the state’s new Connect Maryland initiative to boost broadband access at a Friday event in Snow Hill.
That initiative includes an additional $100 million in funding on top of the $300 million from the American Rescue Plan Act that Hogan, Ferguson and Jones agreed to send toward broadband investments earlier this year. The initiative also includes a bipartisan workgroup made up of municipal and county officials, along with members of the General Assembly, that will look at how to use the $400 million in dedicated broadband funding.
Hogan said the new initiative will be “transformative” in improving broadband access across the state.
“The COVID pandemic has illustrated just how critical a lifeline high speed internet access is to our lives and livelihoods, whether it’s for school work, telehealth or just staying in touch with our families,” Hogan said.
The Maryland General Assembly passed legislation, sponsored in the House by Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City) and in the Senate by Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel), during the 2021 legislative session to create a statewide broadband office. That legislation aims to ensure “98% connectivity to universal, affordable, reliable broadband Internet by December 31, 2025,” and that all Marylanders have access to reliable internet by the end of 2026, according to an analysis by the Department of Legislative Services.
Jones said federal relief funding will be key to building out broadband in the coming years.
“All of this isn’t possible without funding,” Jones said. “‘Last mile’ installation costs for broadband range from $35,000 to $70,000 per mile, which can amount to up to $7,000 to connect a single household. With hundreds of thousands of households lacking a broadband connection or even a computer or tablet to access the internet, the costs are worth the investment.”
Hogan and legislative leaders also launched a statewide broadband subsidy program to help low-income Marylanders pay for high-speed internet. To qualify for the Maryland Emergency Broadband Benefit Subsidy Program, Marylanders will need to have been approved for the Federal Emergency Broadband Benefit Program.
The federal program provides a discount of up to $50 per month for qualifying households. Maryland’s subsidy program will mean that those households can receive up to $65 per month when state and federal assistance is combined.
In order for a household to be eligible for the subsidy program, at least one member of the household must meet one of the following requirements:
- Have an income that is at or below 135% of federal poverty guidelines or participates in certain assistance programs like SNAP, Medicaid or Lifeline
- Be approved to receive benefits under the free and reduced-price school lunch program or the school breakfast program for the 2019-2020 school year or the 2020-2021 school year.
- Received a federal Pell grant during the current award year
- Experienced a “substantial loss of income due to job loss or furlough since Feb. 29, 2020 and the household had a 2020 income of below $99,000 for individual filers or $198,000 for joint filers
- Meet the eligibility requirements for a participating Internet Service Provider’s existing low-income or COVID-19 assistance program.
By Bennett Leckrone