Friday, May 24, 2024

Ben Compaine (“Cambridge as broadband provider may be less needed, less attractive than supposed,” April 16, 2018) is an ideological opponent of municipal broadband, consistent with a career of conservative, contrarian views. Ben considers the digital divide to be an overstated problem, if not a myth, because low-income people freely choose not to spend their money on Internet access. That’s the lens through which he interprets the Broadband Task Force report, cherry-picking facts to assert a point of view that was rejected by the task force majority.

For example, he takes an outreach process that was constrained by the city to a few hours over two years and makes it sound like it was market research. In fact, the task force had a member whose employer could not get the broadband access they needed at any price, and heard about many small businesses who paid high prices for commercial service. We heard, as well, about large employers in Cambridge who reimburse their staff for commercial-grade Comcast service. There’s little doubt that, in a city where the Internet is a foundation of many businesses, there’s significant revenue to be had. Just ask yourself how eager you’d be to switch to a broadband provider who kept your subscription fees in Cambridge to meet Cambridge needs rather than fund, say, stocks buybacks.

While every description of the broadband survey is true, Ben omits the fact that, at one of the last meetings of the task force, the city conceded that the survey was methodologically flawed and that the results were skewed from both the city’s other surveying and the far more reliable U.S. Census data. Regrettably, the city’s acknowledgement came too late in the process to modify the consultant’s report, but none of the survey findings should be taken at face value.

Despite our many differences, Ben and I agree on one thing: The city should undertake a detailed financial analysis of municipal broadband. As Ben knows, that $180 million figure is a worst-case number, assuming that the city would not do things such as reusing existing underground conduit, which it most assuredly would. City after city has been able to make broadband pay for itself, and there’s really no reason to believe Cambridge couldn’t do so as well. The real questions for Cambridge are why the city manager declared municipal broadband “too expensive” without understanding what it would really cost and what we’re willing to do about it.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author, a resident of Cambridge and co-founder of Upgrade Cambridge as well as a member of its Broadband Task Force and Envision Cambridge Working Group.