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DELEGATE BROOKE LIERMAN & SENATOR SARAH ELFRETH PASS LEGISLATION TO ADDRESS DIGITAL DIVIDE AND CREATE OFFICE OF STATEWIDE BROADBAND

Legislation passed with wide bipartisan support that will help connect Marylanders in every corner of the state

(ANNAPOLIS – April 12, 2021) – On Saturday, the General Assembly gave final approval to HB97/SB66, the Digital Connectivity Act of 2021, sponsored by Delegate Brooke Lierman (District 46 – Baltimore City) and Senator Sarah Elfreth (District 30 – Anne Arundel County). The bills passed unanimously in the Senate and overwhelmingly in the House. The Digital Connectivity Act creates the Office of Statewide Broadband (OSB), which will facilitate a coordinated, comprehensive, state-wide effort to ensure that all Marylanders are connected to high-speed, affordable broadband internet by 2026. It will be responsible for administering $300m of dollars from the American Rescue Act that the Governor and General Assembly have designated for a variety of uses to expand affordable, reliable internet..

“Now more than ever, access to the internet and to digital tools like computers and tablets is essential to full participation in society. Nearly 23% of Marylanders – or 520,000 people – remain disconnected. Being disconnected is not just an inconvenience, it prevents Maryland residents and families from accessing education, health care, business, and benefit programs, which worsens and perpetuates existing social inequities,” stated Delegate Brooke Lierman. 

“This bill was crafted with residents in every corner of the State in mind. The data shows that the digital divide is both a rural and urban issue, so we must take a comprehensive, statewide approach. This bill and the funding is essential for students of all ages to learn at home, for Marylanders to access key telehealth services, and for small businesses to thrive,” stated Senator Sarah Elfreth. 

The Digital Connectivity Act of 2021 is a critical step to addressing broadband access and digital literacy issues. Over 35 other states already have statewide offices and without this legislation, Maryland would not be in a position to compete for future funding or coordinate efforts to ensure equitable distribution of resources. The new OSB will have additional staff, funding, and resources that will allow it to identify areas of need, sources of funding, and new technologies to improve connectivity. Additionally, the establishment of a centralized office will be instrumental in ensuring Maryland is able to properly apply for and utilize impending federal funding for broadband, including the $300 million made available to Maryland to improve connectivity under the American Rescue Plan. This office will also be charged with forming partnerships with local jurisdictions, state agencies, our library system, and the private sector to form partnerships, identify critical resources and funding, and work to identify ways to expand digital literacy across the state.

“While the digital divide has existed alongside the growth of technology, the past year has made it undeniably clear to individuals, policymakers, and business leaders that as a society we cannot afford to let it persist. We must work to make sure access is a utility and equitably available, and end the perpetuation of racial inequalities that have created a de facto digital redlining. This bill and related funding are a promising step in that process and create a transformational opportunity to build back better,” stated Andrew Coy, founder and CEO of the Digital Harbor Foundation.

The legislation will ensure funding for rural broadband remains intact and untouched while expanding the goals of the office to include all Marylanders. “This legislation recognizes the important work that the Office of Rural Broadband has accomplished, celebrates it, and says we must expand that work to cover every Marylander,” added Delegate Lierman. “By creating and codifying the OSB, the state can ensure broadband connectivity and digital literacy is a top priority in Maryland.”

Over 60 organizations and individuals testified in support of this legislation.

“As a teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools, I have seen first hand how our students have struggled to access the resources and platforms they desperately need to participate fully in a 21st-century education, both during and before the COVID19 pandemic. The crucial steps laid out by passing of this legislation will have a profound impact on closing the digital divide for students across Maryland,” said Franca Muller Paz, a teacher and supporter of the student-led group SOMOS in Baltimore.

Cheryl Bost, President of the Maryland State Education Association, remarked on the bill’s passage, “With the passage of Senate Bill 66 and House Bill 97, the General Assembly expands the mission of the Office of Rural Broadband to create the new Office of Statewide Broadband. This new expanded office will not only work to address the broadband needs of our students and educators but also help ensure that every resident of the State, regardless of their zip code, is supported by high-quality broadband Internet service and has the tools necessary to use and benefit from it.”

AARP also recognizes the need for seniors to have access to high-speed internet and digital literacy opportunities. “The General Assembly understands that highspeed internet helps older adults age in place, decreases social isolation and offers a higher quality of life than would otherwise exist. The broadband platform supports programs that older Marylanders access like telehealth, civic engagement, entertainment and on-line learning,” said Tammy Bresnahan, Director of Advocacy for AARP MD.

“Internet access and a computer are table stakes for the modern economy. The digital economy offers high paying jobs and a path for building wealth. All Marylanders need the basic tools of broadband access to work, learn and connect with their families. A digitally literate workforce supports our businesses and our economy. We support this bill,” said Yair Flicker, President of SmartLogic.

By creating the Office of Statewide Broadband, Maryland will become a leader in connectivity and digital literacy rates, addressing inequity while growing a stronger economy.

Delegate Brooke Lierman was elected to represent Maryland’s 46th Legislative District in the House of Delegates in 2014. After spending five years as a member of the Appropriations Committee in the House, she assumed a leadership role on the Environment and Transportation Committee in 2019. Additionally, she is the House Chair for the Joint Committee on Pensions, sits on the Joint Committee on Ending Homelessness, and founded and co-chairs the Maryland Transit Caucus. She published an op-ed on this topic in the Washington Post. She is currently a candidate for State Comptroller. Elected in 2018 to represent Annapolis and southern Anne Arundel County, Senator Sarah Elfreth is the youngest woman ever elected to the Maryland Senate. In her first two legislative sessions, Sarah worked with colleagues across the aisle to pass 20 bills she sponsored on issues ranging from supporting the City of Annapolis, libraries, and small businesses, addressing the backlog of untested rape kits, and protecting oysters and clean water. Sarah serves on the Budget & Taxation Committee, Chair of the Pensions Subcommittee, Chair of the Joint Committee on Administrative, and Legislative Review, as one of two senators representing Maryland on the multi-state Chesapeake Bay Commission, and as a member of the Senate President’s Workgroup on Equity & Inclusion

The $300 million to be managed by the Office of State Broadband is divided as follows:

FY21: 30,000,000       Broadband infrastructure and deployment

FY22: 196,456            Personnel Costs for OSB

FY22: 278,865            Contractual Costs for OSB

FY22: 45,000,000       Monthly broadband service subsidies

FY22: 30,000,000       Funding for technological devices for households

FY22: 15,180,000       Grants/loans to local governments & providers for broadband access

FY22: 45,000,000       Municipal broadband access

FY22: 2,000,000         Digital Inclusion Fund

FY22: 5,000,000         Local community-based solutions to address gap networks

FY22: 97,600,000       Broadband infrastructure and deployment

FY22: 4,000,000         New USM division on digital divide training/awareness/etc.

FY22: 2,000,000         Digital Navigator Program (8 projects suggested throughout the state)

FY22: 23,720,000       Rural broadband and digital connectedness