Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Fiber installation to a home in 2015 – in Sweden. (Photo: Viktor_K79 via Flickr)

With a financial feasibility study of city-owned Internet underway, a network looking more realistic and a new city manager in place, the dynamic Monday at an officials’ roundtable was in some ways flopped from years past: City Manager Yi-An Huang seemed more enthusiastic about municipal broadband than some city councillors.

“It’s no secret that the prior administration had significant concerns about the impact a municipal broadband system could have,” and it took significant pressure from councillors to get a study started, Huang said Monday. “This is a very exciting opportunity.”

Buildout of a network would take four-plus years, according to testimony at the roundtable, though certain neighborhoods could be prioritized. Vice mayor Alanna Mallon said she was “excited but sad” upon hearing the estimate after five years of staff resistance, with councillor Patty Nolan agreeing “it’s a little frustrating. Because if we had done this before … that four-year timeline, we’d be through it.”

Hovis

Even so, the need to start deciding doesn’t arrive until early 2023. The original timeline for a final report was this fall, but Huang told councillors of a final report date that “we are a little bit behind [but] pushing hard to make that as soon as possible.”

Detailed cost estimates demand more effort “because of the remarkable uncertainty in the current market with respect to labor and materials,” said Joanne Hovis, president of CTC Technology & Energy, the consultant brought in by the city for the feasibility study. “The level of demand is just unprecedented in the 25 years of commercial Internet in which fiber has been built to the home.” It’s taking more work to make sure numbers are as solid and viable as possible, she said.

Waiting since 2016

Residents have been waiting since a city-run task force wrapped up its work in September 2016 with a suggestion for the study; councillor Quinton Zondervan said he remembered talking about municipal broadband with city manager Robert W. Healy around a decade ago.

A survey this summer run by CTC found that 66 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the city should facilitate building a fiber broadband network, even if it required tax subsidies, which Hovis called “exceptionally high” compared with similar markets. Cambridge has a higher than average amount of population working from home, officials noted during the Monday roundtable.

Survey numbers were similar when comparing respondents who owned and rented their homes – 61 percent to 68 percent – but dropped when looking at residents who already had a second option for Internet, which suggests the popularity of municipal broadband owes much to their dislike of Comcast, which operates as Xfinity. Eighty-seven percent of respondents simply wanted citywide competition for Internet business. (Starry, one of the rare other players here for lower-income residents in Cambridge Housing Authority homes, faces financial troubles.) People said they’d be most excited about subscribing for between $30 and $70 monthly.

“Cambridge, despite being a hub of technological innovation, is a near monopoly for Comcast, which provides average-quality Internet service – of which I am a subscriber,” Huang said.

Taking on Xfinity

Nolan, looking at information presented by CTC, was newly disappointed by Comcast. “I need to go look at our bill, because I think we’re overpaying,” Nolan said. “We don’t get the advertised speeds that Comcast says they [provide]. We’ve checked them time and time again.”

Some of the fiber being used by Comcast was placed in the 1980s, but its network is still “very able,” Hovis said. The company and its peers are also contemplating a round of upgrades nationwide that will “almost certainly position the cable industry to compete robustly” against what the city might provide technologically.

Consumer advocates say that will also likely lead to higher prices to consumers; Huang and Hovis said having a competitor in town might be the only way to keep prices low, and Comcast’s competitors have declined to bid for business in Cambridge over the past three decades.

Partnership or utility

The CTC presentation pointed Cambridge toward exploring partnerships with private companies – even with Comcast – because the most successful wholly independent city-owned broadband operations have their own municipal electrical utilities. Creating a fiber network is easier when the city owns its own utility poles, which is not the case in Cambridge, which the consultants said will need a network of 130.3 route miles of fiber, 62.1 percent of it overground. And for home or business installation, maintenance and the ability to respond to subscribers with tech problems, Cambridge would “have to develop or more likely buy those capabilities,” Hovis said. “Cities that were already public-power cities certainly seem to have had an advantage with regard to infrastructure capabilities, capacity, financing ability and a variety of other things that put them in a position to to build these networks and to operate them … Having an existing [municipal] utility is is a game changer; developing a new one, not necessarily.”

Though it wouldn’t put existing utility poles under city ownership, the city could take a hybrid step of forming a “municipal light plant.” Nolan said the council could hold a first vote “very soon” to give city staff the ability to create one if the broadband study suggests it.

Municipal light plants are being studied by the Law Department, city solicitor Nancy Glowa said, and Huang didn’t exactly say no to the idea: “My only concern may be that setting up the municipal light plant is still a bit of a lift in terms of council and staff time,” Huang said. “It probably is prudent to wait for the final report.”

Though Zondervan has called for the city to dismantle its own Water Department, on Monday he wondered if having a water utility could help make up for not having a power department, such as by piggybacking on its billing infrastructure.

“The sooner we get started, the better,” Zondervan said.

Taking a step back

There were also councillors expressing more caution.

“You’re probably pretty close to a mandate” for city-owned broadband considering survey responses, councillor Marc McGovern said – but people might feel differently after several more years of roadwork to install fiber, and questions remained about operating costs. Senior member E. Denise Simmons wanted assurances about relief for the bills of low-income residents and answers about how municipal broadband would affect seniors who wanted their Comcast cable just for television. The council’s youngest member, Burhan Azeem, meanwhile, wasn’t sold immediately on Hovis’ promise of “symmetrical” upload and download speeds, which the city could offer but Comcast does not. “I download a lot of Netflix movies; I don’t make a lot of Netflix movies,” Azeem said, though he was excited by the idea of enabling virtual reality and even robot surgery. “Cambridge really deserves a high speed internet connection.”

Councillor Paul Toner, who wanted the city manager to provide a recommendation in 2023 with FAQs and pros and cons, seemed most skeptical. “I just want to take a step back. This whole conversation has been ‘Just give us the bill, because we’re going to do it,’ and we still have a lot of issues we have to wrestle with,” Toner said.

Though no one on staff or from CTC was prepared to give an estimate Monday on the costs of construction, operation and the bonding that would pay for it, Toner said he thought a May update had suggested a figure of around $150 million.

Former city manager Louis DePasquale, in the sole time he addressed publicly his years opposing a study, said in May 2020 that he feared “a million-dollar investment [in a study] leading to a billion-dollar investment” in broadband. That made the figure Toner overheard a relative bargain, and half the cost of the city’s latest school construction.

The CTC contract was for $465,000.