City broadband: An idea whose time has passed
The Internet has become an essential tool in today’s world, and there is no question that Internet equity is essential for all in our city. The need for access has been clearly demonstrated during Covid, where many students and workers were left behind by being unable to apply for jobs, access Zoom or attend virtual classes. The lack of access for some continues while the city debates how to build Internet equity.
Currently, Comcast enjoys a virtual monopoly in Cambridge, providing cable access to those who subscribe. In response to ongoing dissatisfaction with Comcast’s poor service and high costs, which preclude some residents from becoming subscribers, there has been discussion of construction of a municipally owned citywide broadband system, one that would “compete” with Comcast. The price tag on this system has been estimated to be around $35 million, but could potentially be more.
To assess the potential for a municipal broadband system, it is important to understand the many ways to deliver Internet service. Some are old and no longer viable; some are just being rolled out now. Each has pluses and minuses.
Remember dial-up? Some people still have it, although it’s very rare. It provides Internet through phone lines. It is too slow for today’s needs, which include streaming, video calling and other applications that require more bandwidth.
This travels via the same copper wire as your telephone signal. It’s slow, prone to outages and is an outmoded technology. Nevertheless, some people in Cambridge still have DSL.
Cable is Cambridge’s current dominant system. This involves running wires from central distribution points to each user. Cable has been placed in trenches and along telephone poles along every one of the 150 miles of Cambridge’s streets – and then are strung to each house, building and apartment. The plus is that cable is pretty fast. The minus is that it’s an old technology, introduced in 1995, and expensive to install and maintain. This is what Comcast is providing.
Fiber involves running fiber optic cable from central points (or distribution points) to each user. The plus is that it’s super fast, but expensive to install and maintain. (It requires the same in-street installation as cable, but the “last mile” (connecting each user to network) requires a trained technician to physically install equipment in each house and apartment. This is the type of system that’s being considered by municipal broadband advocates.
The following technologies bypass any cable or fiber system and are therefore less expensive to install.
This has been around for quite some time. With this method, the Internet signal travels by microwave from a tall building in the area directly to an antenna on the end users’ buildings, eliminating the need for fiber or cable (except for the final connection). Ground-based microwave is used by just about all types of communications globally for at least part of its journey. Nevertheless, the end users still typically needs either cable or fiber to go from their computer to their microwave antenna. Service providers such as Starry and TowerStream are cherry-picking the market, looking at businesses and apartment buildings. Microwave does not require in-street installation.
T-Mobile pioneered this in the USA, and others have jumped into the market. This is acceptably fast for some uses, but effectively too slow for video. It’s a cellphone technology, transmitted through antennas, and is therefore inexpensive to install and maintain.
The newest technology, 5G is now available in many parts of the city, and is being installed throughout. It’s easy to install and use, as it doesn’t need to be installed on site by a technician. The 5G provider gives the user a small modem or router/modem. This is placed near a window. The user can be online in minutes without a technician. The is also a cellphone technology; it’s transmitted through antennas, and is therefore inexpensive to install and maintain.
There’s only one thing holding back 5G: The signal doesn’t travel very far, which therefore requires more distribution antennas. T-Mobile has been installing antennas throughout the city.
With 1,300 satellites already in orbit, and another 20,000 to 30,000 scheduled, low-orbit satellites have the potential to supersede all other technologies. This has the ability to be extremely fast and inexpensive, especially the “last mile.” Not to be confused with older “geosynchronous” satellites, Starlink (SpaceX), OneWeb, and Kuiper/Amazon are building global low-orbit satellite Internet systems.
Distributed Wi-Fi zones (Having lots of Wi-Fi routers around the city)
Although Wi-Fi zones have been around for many years, and are used in many cities around the world, it’s typically very slow. It’s nice for public parks, schools, libraries, and other small areas, but it’s simply not a solution for today’s data-intensive needs. There are also security concerns with shared Wi-Fi.
These newer technologies (4G, 5G, microwave and satellite) would bypass fiber or cable systems. As the new systems compete for market share, consumers will see price wars and prices will come down – or cities can negotiate packages for low-income residents as are available in Cambridge from Comcast, T-Mobile, Verizon and other providers (for $9 to $10 a month).
Apart from the cost and the questionable wisdom of installing an outdated technology, some advocates for a municipally owned system believe falsely that a municipally owned system will enhance data privacy. But Cambridge wouldn’t directly operate a municipally owned system; it would be subcontracted to a third party. All data is vulnerable to hacking, and a municipal system is only as strong as the security firm hired to protect it. If someone wishes a high level of data protection, they would have to install their own security protocols, regardless of the system provider.
Low-income people in Cambridge need Internet access now. The price tag for a municipal system (using fiber) is around $35 million, and would operate at increasingly significant losses due to technological advances and a shrinking consumer base (as Cambridge customers sign up with cheaper and faster competing systems). It would not pay for itself over the coming years, but remain as an increasing drain on the city’s financial resources. Instead, Cambridge could provide grants or subsidies for those who need Internet for a tiny fraction of this expenditure. (The Port/Area IV Coalition piloted this approach with grants to local families last summer.) Cambridge could also supply free data to every school student.
Internet equity is critical. Implementing a municipal broadband system with fiber will not provide equity. Instead, by the time it is completed, new technologies will be in place, leaving behind those dependent on the outdated system. Maintaining the system, which will have decreasing numbers of users each year as people switch to faster and more reliable Internet, will become problematic, less reliable, and more costly.
Tech pundits agree that a hard-wired system has little future beyond the next three years except for the highest bandwidth needs of businesses. Residential applications for computers, TV, audio, and telephone are well within the bandwidth of satellite and ground-based microwave system and will be for the coming years.
There are more cost-effective ways to establish Internet equity in Cambridge than municipal broadband. All Cambridge residents deserve access to high quality Internet, starting now. There is no reason to spend years building a system that will be out of date before it is completed. While the idea of a municipally owned system would have possibly been a good idea 20-plus years ago, those days are over. We’re (literally right now) ending the hard-wired Internet era and entering the wireless Internet delivery era. All of the systems that are either being rolled out now or in the very near future would bypass any local municipal system.
Phillip Sego, Norfolk Street