Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Several thousand Cambridge residents report not having broadband Internet access at home. (Photo: Ava)

Cambridge, the city where the Internet was invented a half-century ago, ironically has struggled to ensure that residents have access to the benefits of the digital world. Addressing this digital divide has been an early priority of my time on the City Council, but an issue I’ve long taken an interest in, going back to the days of Mayor Henrietta Davis. Last month I chaired a committee hearing on this topic, and this week I’ve introduced a policy order to address it. Working with the city manager and his staff, the mayor and colleagues on the council, we’ve developed a proposal that prioritizes disadvantaged communities, is not cost-prohibitive and does not preclude the possibility of a full, municipally owned broadband network in the future. It is my hope that this policy will help us close the digital divide in Cambridge, even as we continue to debate the best technologies and business models to provide a higher level of service to all our residents.

We are a wealthy city, and the vast majority of our residents are able to buy Internet access in their home, though even they are surprisingly underserved. I inquired recently with Verizon and Comcast and was unable to procure 1 gigabit service for my own home. (There was a business-level gigabit service available … at $450 per month.) But even if 95 percent of our residents report that they have Internet access, that leaves several thousand who don’t, according to the most recent American Community Survey. And many of those who report having access put up with lower-quality service or having to turn it off periodically to make ends meet.

Imagine being a Cambridge Rindge and Latin School student without reliable, affordable access to collaborate with peers and complete assignments. Imagine being an elderly Section 8 tenant who can access the Internet only in the building’s common area, with no privacy to Skype a loved one or complete taxes. These are the situations some of my constituents experience every day, and they are simply unacceptable. The solution is to create more options for access and to subsidize those who need it the most. By lifting people up we empower them, enabling our community as a whole to be a more resilient, more connected and more satisfying to live in.

That’s why the order I put forward defines affordable broadband access and sets the aspirational goals of ensuring universal affordable broadband access for all public high school students in Cambridge by 2020, and for all residents by 2025. The order also asks the city manager to measure the extent of the problem and develop a plan to achieve these goals, including an exploration of the feasibility of leasing out portions of the existing city-owned fiber network to provide broadband service and updating our dig-once policy to ensure optimal installation of conduits for future public or private build-outs. 

Those in our city who suffer from a lack of reliable, affordable Internet access do so largely in silence. Embarrassed by their predicament, they learn to rely on friends, family and careful planning to get by. If even one high school student in our city cannot complete their homework online, or a family goes hungry because mom and dad can’t apply for jobs, or an elderly or disabled person is isolated because of a lack of Internet access, we should treat that as equivalent to people not having access to electricity, heat or phone service. Access to the Internet is a necessity, not a luxury, and everyone in our community deserves an equal opportunity to participate in the digital future.

Quinton Zondervan is a city councillor.