Hardebeck

Jason Hardebeck is Baltimore’s first Broadband Coordinator. (Twitter Photo)

Jason Hardebeck, Baltimore’s first ever Broadband Coordinator, says he has been in “sponge mode” ever since he was appointed back in August.

He’s tasked with a big job. He must determine how to lay the groundwork as the city looks to improve access to high-speed internet for all of its citizens.

According to the National Broadband Map, Maryland’s broadband speed ranks 14th out of all 50 states and Baltimore City ranks fourth in a ranking of Maryland’s 24 counties. The map was created by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The numbers may not look so bad, but most city residents agree that internet usage within city limits is simply not as fast as the access other Marylanders are getting throughout the state.

“The fastest Internet speed offered by Comcast in Baltimore is only one-third of what is currently available in Annapolis and most of the state,” wrote members of the grassroots group Baltimore Broadband Campaign in a July 2014 op-ed in the AFRO.

That’s where Hardebeck comes in.

Hardebeck is a self-described entrepreneur, who served as co-chair of the city’s Smarter Baltimore Task Force. The group released a report in June that outlined ways to make Baltimore more attractive to the technologically savvy.

“I have a six month contract that can be extended to a year but the goal is to figure out what replaces me…whether it’s inside city government or it’s a nonprofit or it’s public-private or what. But it’s a roll that needs to talk to a bunch of different stakeholders both inside city government and outside,” he said in an interview with the AFRO last week.

He said that it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault that the city is lagging behind in access to high speed broadband. It’s just that broadband is a relatively new idea, and the city hasn’t yet had the opportunity to build it out.

“I would not so much agree,” said Alyce Myatt. She is part of a group of city residents who are raising awareness about the city’s lack of high-speed broadband, similar to the Baltimore Broadband Campaign. “I think that other cities have been more actively engaged in the issue. I think that Baltimore has a lot of issues that we need to address and this is but one of them,” Myatt said.

“One of the things that is critical, is for residents of Baltimore to advocate on their own behalf,” she said. “If you’re looking for a job, you need the internet. If you’re a student or professor and you want to do work at home – it’s slow,” Myatt said. She said that access to the internet is as important as access to electricity.

“It’s not just to be able to watch films, it’s to be able to work and to learn.”

To that end, Hardebeck sees a future where access to the internet is available to every single citizen. One way to do that, he said, was through schools.

“I think, the biggest opportunity for us is Baltimore City schools and looking at the potential to provide broadband to the schools through the city’s own network,” he said.

He said that right now, the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology is working to extend the city’s current fiber network. This project, called 800MHZ Overbuild project, will add on to a network that first responders have been using for decades. He’d like to extend that and loop it to each of the city’s schools.

“Right now the school system has a contract with an outside vendor that’s providing internet to each of the schools through commercial providers. We’re looking at the feasibility of actually someday replacing that with the city’s own fiber.”

He said that doing that would make internet access much cheaper because it wouldn’t be coming from an outside source.

“And if we’re doing that, instead of stopping at the school what if we continue onward? What if we use each of those 186 schools as additional parts of a network? We’re that much closer to the neighborhoods, we’re that much closer to everybody’s residence.”

He said that there are government funds that could help subsidize this project.

He also envisions a kind of city-wide, municipal wi-fi.

“It doesn’t mean that you’d be able to stream Netflix on your phone but if you could basically use wi-fi instead of data – whether it’s email or filling out a job application or just basic uses.”

Some smaller cities have already established municipal wi-fi systems: Rockport, Maine and Peach Tree City, Ga. are two.

“It doesn’t happen quickly, but if we’re not focused on how we do that now, we’ll never get there,” Hardebeck said.