Covid-19 brings short-term fix for digital divide, but Cambridge must address its broadband need (corrected)
The Board of the Cambridge Residents Alliance is writing in support of exploring short-term solutions to expand Internet access to residents, proposed Monday by city councillors Quinton Zondervan, Patty Nolan, Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler and Marc McGovern.
As the coronavirus spreads, many Americans and Cantabrigians are being asked to stay home. Businesses have closed their doors, offices have asked their employees to work from home and schools have moved to online education. As smoothly as this transition has happened for some, many others have been left behind on the far side of the digital divide.
It is clearer now than ever that access to broadband Internet is just as much a necessity as the roads we drive on. Today and for months to come, broadband will be how we get to work, apply for government benefits, communicate with our families and learn. Without access to this digital highway, half of our low-income families have little or no ability to provide income for their households or an education for their children; nor can they easily apply for unemployment. This may come as a surprise to some residents, but the city administration has had ample time to work on closing this gap.
The previous city manager, Richard C. Rossi, formed the a broadband task force to study this exact problem. At its conclusion, it provided three recommendations, one of which was to do a feasibility study for the construction of a citywide fiber optic broadband. After current City Manager Louis A. DePasquale took office, he disbanded the task force and ignored its recommendations. The City Council passed several policy orders asking for his opinion on the recommendations, all of which received no response at all from the city administration. During a committee hearing on the topic, it was discovered that DePasquale baselessly believed that a municipal broadband project would “bankrupt the city.”
For the past two years the local advocacy group Upgrade Cambridge and Zondervan have been raising awareness of the digital divide by rallying, hosting events and supporting policy orders. This pressure caused DePasquale to initiate a digital equity study. This study has yet to conclude, and therefore cannot provide guidance at this time.
With the closing of workplaces and schools across the country, the digital divide is moving to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. Many news organizations such as National Public Radio, Bloomberg and The New York Times are publishing pieces about how many students will not be able to continue their education because they don’t have proper Internet access at home. According to Bloomberg, AT&T is developing an unlimited data plan for school-issued Wi-Fi hotspots and other cell-network enabled devices. As wonderful as this is, Cambridge should not be dependent on the generosity of large corporations to ensure the education of our student population. Corporate generosity often finds a way to turn into profit later, for example by selling our personal data. Moreover, the programs have contingencies. Comcast is offering two months of Internet free for new subscribers – not for folks who have had the service and can no longer afford it. Moreover, individuals who owe Comcast money within the past year are also ineligible.
Many cities have already implemented their own municipal networks. Chattanooga, Tennessee, provides 1 gigabit-per-second service, which is 40 times better than Comcast’s “affordable” offer for low-income families. Other cities and towns in Massachusetts are considering building their own networks, including Quincy.
Although Cambridge is behind, we can still catch up. Step No. 1 is to develop short-term solutions to get Internet access to our individuals and families who need it the most. One of the fastest ways to do that is to issue cell-network activated Wi-Fi hotspots. This, however, is not sustainable long term. A potential medium-term solution could be for the city and the Cambridge Housing Authority to work with point-to-point wireless providers such as NetBlazr and Starry to place repeaters on public buildings. This would both provide free Internet to the occupants of those buildings and give quick access to others by expanding the coverage area. The best and longest-term solution is, of course, to follow up on the many years-old broadband task force recommendations and commence the feasibility study for a citywide fiber optic network.
The coronavirus will be with us for the foreseeable future. We are working to “flatten the curve,” but we won’t eradicate the virus. We can eradicate the digital divide so all residents can survive during this crisis. Please move forward rapidly on developing and implementing short- and long-term solutions to close this gap once and for all. Thanks to those advocating for all residents in Cambridge through support of the policy order!
Lee Farris, president and on behalf of the board of the Cambridge Residents Alliance
This post was updated April 1, 2020, to correct that city councillor Marc McGovern was a cosponsor of the policy order.