What’s the matter with Cambridge? Broadband not even a planning topic

A Wi-Fi antenna for wireless broadband is installed in Minneapolis in 2006. (Photo: Peter Fleck)

We coastal elites have been accused of mocking the heartland by pointing out that they often support governments that work against their own economic interests. But we don’t have to look farther than our own City Hall to find an example.

Cambridge has launched an ambitious planning process seeking to find a collective vision for our community. This effort has many threads, but one critical component is the Cambridge economy and how to make it more equitable.

It is a simple truth that access to the Internet is required for participation in the modern economy. If the goal is more ambitious – to allow everyone access to Cambridge’s lucrative knowledge-based economy – equitable access to the Internet is a priority.

The materials provided to the Envision Cambridge Economic Working Group don’t even mention Internet access. Not a word.

If you talk to economic development professionals, as I have this week, and tell them you’re doing economic planning without a mention of broadband, they’re stunned. When you tell them you’re from Cambridge, a city that has a legitimate claim to having invented the Internet, they think you’re engaging in some elaborate prank. It’s simply unthinkable to them that the fabric that connects everything not be a part of economic planning.

It’s not that Cambridge doesn’t know this. The Mayor’s Commission on Economic Insecurity, led by vice mayor Marc McGovern, noted that when they talked to residents, access to the Internet was a top issue. Richard C. Rossi, city manager at the time, appointed a Broadband Task Force to look at options to increase competition and lower prices. The task force concluded that, for the price of a school, Cambridge could build its own broadband network. That would give it control over pricing and allow it to extend access to everyone regardless of the ability to pay. We recommended a feasibility study for municipal broadband that would have included planning to make Cambridge a digitally inclusive city.

Reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom of a municipal broadband investment. But regardless of one’s conclusions, to be talking about economic equity without confronting digital equity and inclusion is outrageous. Anyone who has had trouble paying for Comcast or signing up for Comcast’s “Internet Essentials” should be furious at this blind spot. Those of us who for whom the Internet is a given should be equally angry on their behalf.

While digital equity is a moral issue, the terrible state of broadband in Cambridge drags the Cambridge economy. Our anchor institutions – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, the pharmaceutical and information industries – are so wealthy and so Internet dependent that they just do what it takes to get what they need. That leaves the burden of dealing with a Comcast monopoly that underserves and overprices to residents and small businesses. Surely this is worthy of mention in an economic planning discussion.

There is much Cambridge could be doing to mitigate all these problems. We could, like Boston, create a digital equity and inclusion position, someone whose job is to explore every avenue to facilitate access to the Internet, whether that means individual casework or larger-scale identification of resources and assets. We could work with the new fixed wireless internet providers, netBlazr and Starry, to seek ways to get them to provide services to low-income residents.

One thing is certainly true: We can’t fix these problems if we’re not talking about them. To talk about the Cambridge economy without talking about the Internet is ludicrous. Further, to approach economic equity without addressing digital inclusion is to guarantee failure.

And before you mock the heartland next time, remember that their economic development officials understand this issue. After all, even Kansas (City) has a Digital Equity Plan.

The author is a member of, but not speaking for, the Cambridge Broadband Task Force or Envision Cambridge Working Group.


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