High Cost of Municipal Broadband in Cambridge Leads to Lack of City Support

No internet by Marcelo Graciolli is licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

By Yaochi Fu 
BU News Service

This article was originally published in the Cambridge Chronicle.

“The city manager [Louis DePasquale] does not support a Cambridge-financed municipal broadband system,” said Lee Gianetti, director of Communication and Community Relations for the city, at a March 22 hearing organized by the Neighborhood and Long-Term Planning, Public Facilities, Arts and Celebrations Committee of the City Council.

About 25 residents attended the discussion, gave testimony and heard from city staff, councilors and experts on issues related to the city’s digital divide and its potential solutions.

Over 200 local governments across the country have built or overseen municipal broadband systems, according to industry outlets like Broadband Communities.

“Municipal broadband systems can result in lower fees for high-speed access,” according to studies like a 2018 look at 22 systems by Harvard’s Berkman Center.

In 2014, then-City Manager Richard Rossi appointed the Broadband Task Force to examine alternatives for Cambridge in hopes of improving and lowering the cost of internet access for all residents and businesses. After a two-year study, the Task Force published a report recommending the city build its own fiber optic network.

However, in the 18 months since the group submitted its recommendations, no significant progress has been seen. Because of the inaction, a new grassroots organization of concerned Cambridge residents, led by Task Force member Saul Tannenbaum called Upgrade Cambridge, formed early last month.

The March 22 public hearing was the first time the topic of municipal broadband was brought back to the table since the last and final meeting of the Task Force in 2016.

Speakers call for progress on Task Force report

At the meeting, Nancy Ryan, a resident of Central Square and a member of the Cambridge Residents Alliance, urged city officials to move forward with a broadband system that provides the same internet access to everyone in the city.

“There is no option to really make a serious dent in digital divide without having some kind of a broad system that services people where they are,” she said. “It’s really time.”

Teresa Cardosi and Glenna Wyman, both Cambridge residents living in public housing, talked about the struggles of getting decent internet connections in their buildings. Both of them said that the WiFi doesn’t reach upper floors, which causes an inconvenience to people who want to use their laptops and work at home. The community room, which is the only spot people can access free internet, becomes a public place. People engage in what ought to be private transactions, such as paying taxes and “Skyping with family members,” Wyman said.

“It’s absolutely not acceptable in this day and age,” she added.

Seventeen people also submitted written testimony to the committee because they could not attend in person. Many said having the city provide the internet service prevents the monopoly by telecommunication companies such as Comcast and thus could lower the price.

According to a 2015 public opinion survey, Comcast is the major provider of internet service at home in Cambridge. However, some residents are not pleased with its price and service.

Roy Russell, a member of Upgrade Cambridge’s steering committee, said he currently pays $96.90 a month to Comcast for the internet service, which is “the lowest possible rate, [and] that is triple the price of the same services provided by RCN in Somerville.”

“A municipal broadband system could provide a higher-level service for a lower price,” he said, adding it is also necessary to address digital equity issues.

Task Force member Tannenbaum suggested city officials do a detailed financial analysis and hold outreach community conversations to study the feasibility of a municipal broadband system before making further decisions.

“We are considered the birthplace of the internet,” he said. “We should honor that tradition, fill the gap, and move forward with a municipal broadband.

Next steps remain unclear

Despite the call for equitable digital access and reliable internet service, building a municipal broadband is not financially feasible, said some city officials.

In 2016, the Task Force estimated it would cost $180 million to construct a municipal broadband network but in an email interview after the hearing, Gianetti said much more funding would be needed to operate the system, “potentially millions of dollars needed annually” and that it could pose “a financial risk.”

Even though city officials agree with the Task Force on the goal of providing affordable, reliable and fast internet service, Gianetti said the next steps would focus on addressing access and the digital divide. He reiterated the city is assuming it will not “build or fund on its own any commercially available network infrastructure.”

However, committee chair, Councilor Quinton Zondervan, who supports putting in municipal broadband, said he is still in favor of the “city owning at least some part of the network,” in an email interview following the meeting.

While he acknowledged “not putting the city in a disadvantageous financial position” is crucial, Zondervan said he believes there are cost effective ways that should be explored more fully to achieve the goal of providing better internet service to all.

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