Brooke Lierman, a Democrat, represents Baltimore in the Maryland House of Delegates.

During a Thanksgiving like no other, millions of Americans chose to forgo holiday travel and instead use family video calls to get as close as safely possible to loved ones. Unfortunately, this connection was not an option for many Maryland families because of a pervasive and growing digital divide in our state — one of many added challenges facing disconnected Marylanders this year.

This digital divide isn’t only about staying connected to loved ones; it is also the difference between a student keeping pace with classmates or missing out entirely. This inequitable access means some Marylanders can safely participate in remote doctors’ visits while others suffer without medical care — until they end up in emergency rooms. It means that businesses cannot launch in disconnected areas of the state, as it is nearly unthinkable in this day to start a business without reliable, affordable Internet.

For these and many other reasons, sustaining and building thriving local economies and healthy communities mean ensuring every Marylander has access to high-speed Internet.

Unfortunately, data show that access is highly inequitable in rural, suburban and urban communities around the state. In Baltimore, for example, more than 40 percent of households lack wired access to the Internet through cable, fiber or another service. Nearly 20,000 of those 96,000 households have children. Broadband infrastructure presents a problem in rural areas as well, with topography and geographic dispersion creating barriers to adequate infrastructure. In Easton, kids are gathering near the Dunkin’ for WiFi access. In western Maryland, in southern Anne Arundel, in Prince George’s, in Charles, in every county, too many communities are stranded without access to high-speed Internet. Ten years ago, lack of access was an inconvenience. Now it’s an emergency.

Because there are multiple points of failure that have led to this inequitable Internet access for Marylanders, solutions must also be multifaceted and collaborative. The issues range from physical lack of broadband infrastructure to cost, which includes the cost of devices, including maintenance, repairs and upgrades and digital literacy. Beyond that, the free or low-cost Internet options touted by private providers often aren’t sufficient to support video and other critical functions.

Despite years of living with this inequitable access issue, the private companies tasked with providing Internet access have been unable to reach all Marylanders — and they never will. As for-profit corporations, they lack incentives to do so because it is simply not profitable to ensure every Marylander is connected. Maryland must do more.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) created the Office of Rural Broadband in 2017, and though it has done important work, more support and coordination are needed. The problems are bigger than just those affecting our rural jurisdictions. Increased deployment of broadband Internet will improve long-term quality of life for all Marylanders and will ensure that we remain economically competitive — locally and globally.

Because this is a statewide problem, we need a statewide office that will pull together private and public partners, agencies and county governments to identify the gaps and implement affordable, reliable, high-speed access for all. We need an office that will work for all Marylanders in every corner of the state to support the adoption of reliable, universal, high-quality broadband Internet service at an affordable price.

The office will need to develop standardized definitions for broadband that reflect the need for forward-looking statewide digital communications infrastructure; collect pricing data from Internet service providers; create a statewide audit of the availability, reliability and affordability of Internet in every county; and assist and support local jurisdictions in their efforts to improve access and identify funding sources to expand access and digital literacy. All of these tasks and more are included in legislation that state Sen. Sarah Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) and I have proposed in the Digital Connectivity Act of 2021.

This type of office already exists in 33 other states, but it does not in Maryland. We need a strong, coordinated approach to be competitive for federal grants and programs in a Biden-Harris administration. This problem is too large and far-reaching for us to suffer further delay. Passing this bill next session will allow us to take advantage of millions of dollars that will create opportunity and level the virtual playing field in our state.

We must accelerate solutions to expanding access to affordable high-speed Internet in every corner of the state by building on work already done quickly and comprehensively at the state level. The coronavirus pandemic has shown that this isn’t just a good idea but also is essential for all of us to stay safe, keep learning and stay connected to each other.

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