Failures of city-owned Internet elsewhere show municipal broadband won’t work in Cambridge
In a recent op-ed about city-owned Internet (“Billion-dollar estimates are just the latest riddle in manager’s mysterious blocking of broadband,” June 1), Saul Tannenbaum rightly points out that the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for expanded broadband access. But his proposed solution of a city-owned broadband network wouldn’t deliver the service Massachusetts residents need. Based on the cumulative history of municipal broadband, this plan would likely fail to materialize at all. But if it did, it would strain state and local budgets already facing dire projections due to the Covid-19 crisis and leave taxpayers on the hook for the financial fallout.
We’ve seen this situation play out time and time again here in New England and across the country. In nearby Burlington, Vermont, the city tried to build its own broadband network and was unable to service the debt for the project. The city’s credit rating was eventually downgraded and it sold the system at a significant loss to taxpayers. Groton, Connecticut, also built its own broadband network and was forced to unload it for a $30 million taxpayer loss. Even Google, after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on municipal broadband projects, made a decision to abandon its municipal broadband strategy because it was too competitive and costly.
Right now, when resources are scarce, policymakers should build on what we know has worked before. Public-private partnerships facilitated by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute have helped connect tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents. Through MBI’s Last Mile program, 42 of the 53 communities that were either completely or partially unserved at the beginning of 2017 have been set on a dedicated path to broadband connectivity and several towns have completed, active networks. Comcast and other private companies have also entered into agreements providing high-speed broadband to more than 20 communities and thousands of residences and businesses, and in the majority of these communities, the overall coverage level will reach or exceed 96 percent.
Broadband is a complicated, expensive, competitive and rapidly evolving business that very few municipalities can successfully compete in – and it’s ultimately taxpayers who pay the price when these initiatives inevitably fail. Going forward, let’s build on what we know works to keep Massachusetts connected and expand both broadband access and utilization.
Tim Wilkerson is president of the New England Cable and Telecommunications Association, based in Boston.