BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Local and federal officials Monday praised millions of dollars in federal investments in Baltimore City that will be used to expand Internet access for seniors and educate them about telemedicine.
According to Mayor Brandon Scott’s office, approximately $2.35 million in congressional earmarks has been set aside to not only expand the city’s fiber optic network to local senior centers, but also to develop three telehealth pilot programs.
Mayor Scott said Monday morning at the Baltimore Hatton Senior Center that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of internet access and digital literacy for the health of residents, especially seniors.
“Digital inclusion is an important social determinant of resident health and well-being as our population ages,” he said. “Many of our elderly residents are in social isolation and the pandemic has exacerbated this problem. The inability of so many of our older adults to reliably access the Internet severely limits their quality of life.”
Nearly 43,000 Baltimore households don’t have an Internet connection, Scott said, and about 29,000 don’t have a computer. He said that about 62% of adults over the age of 65 have a computer and broadband Internet access, while 24% of them do not have a computer.
The mayor said the funding will enable Baltimore’s seniors to take advantage of resources in the digital space, from renewing their prescriptions through telehealth appointments to connecting with grandchildren through social media.
“Internet access is not only a critical public infrastructure, but also an equality issue, and Baltimore plans to permanently close the digital divide by the end of this decade,” Scott said. “By bringing the fiber network to our senior centers, we plan to create connectivity hubs for our older adults and provide them with the tools and training needed to successfully navigate virtual care spaces.”
Dutch US Representative Ruppersberger attributed the effort to a combination of congressional earmarking — money set aside for specific projects typically pinned to other legislation — and collaboration between local and federal officials.
“We are here today to really recognize this teamwork,” said Ruppersberger.
The congressman said the expanded fiber access will reach 13 senior centers in Baltimore City, six of them city-owned and seven others operated by local nonprofits.
The officials’ comments came the same day the Biden administration announced plans for a… program that aims to provide subsidized Internet access to millions of Americans through the whole country. Twenty internet providers have joined.
“We know we need to broaden that kind of access across the country,” Congressman John Sarbanes said. “We also know that telehealth services make a huge difference. During the pandemic, we had to seize that opportunity to provide remote healthcare to many, many people in our country, including seniors.
The move marks the latest step in Scott’s long-term goal to close Baltimore’s “digital divide,” or the gap between households with reliable Internet access and devices and those without. To be government has already pledged $35 million for the effort.