Monday, June 24, 2024

Somerville offers Wi-Fi at public places such as its West Branch library, but is looking at a full municipal broadband network. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The creation of city-owned Internet that would go beyond recommendations by a 2018 task force was taken up by Somerville city councilors Monday in a Public Utilities and Public Works Committee.

Recommendations were made in 2019 by a city Internet Access Task Force exploring “ways to preserve and expand affordable and neutral internet service across the city,” but the Covid pandemic delayed action, according to the City of Somerville website.

The report didn’t recommend creating city-owned Internet service provider, but that the city facilitates the building of a fiber network owned and operated by a private company. The rollout would take two years to reach the point at which everyone in Somerville would be “servable,” which doesn’t mean everyone would have service.

A retail Internet service provider such as RCN or Comcast Xfinity would be granted exclusive rights to the infrastructure for three years. After that time, any ISP would be able to use the infrastructure.

The cost of the plan would be borne by private companies, but the city would be able to implement rules about net neutrality – ensuring all sites and content are treated the same – and access. The report theorizes that the plan would increase competition and decrease prices, at least when the three-year monopoly period is up.

Discussion at the meeting, however, was mostly about city-owned models, which the report discussed but did not recommend.

Models for municipal broadband

More than 600 communities across the United States already have some form of municipal network, according to the Institute for Local Self Reliance. Neighboring Cambridge is exploring city-owned Internet; during a Nov. 28 roundtable, Cambridge city councillor Patty Nolan wondered if it was possible to take a regional approach with Somerville and other communities that “may actually help our model in terms of cost competitiveness and sustainability.”

In Somerville, councilor Charlotte Kelly referred to Cambridge’s study and asked whether any communities doing municipal broadband had pursued a regional approach – and heard back from invited expert Carolyn Kirk, the former mayor of Gloucester and executive director of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, that it’s hard to pull off, but a “onesie or a twosie” could be possible.

There are two models being looked at that would see Somerville own its own network. In one, city operation would potentially offer lower prices than existing ISPs and guarantee net neutrality – but at high cost.

Another scenario would see the city own the network but have private companies run the service, potentially increasing competition in the area that would also lead to lower prices.

Greg Hill, a member of a citizens group in favor of municipal broadband, said he hoped there would be ”public hearings about the task force reports’ recommendations, because some of them, to our mind, are not necessarily accurate, and there definitely needs to be public input.”

Municipal broadband has a base of support in the city from residents, councilors and the mayor, said city councilor Jessie Clingan, chair of the committee.

“We have the political will,” Clingan said. “If we can actually afford the price tag or not, that’s the issue.”

Funding sources

A lot of talk during the meeting was about funding sources. Massachusetts is due to get $145 million meant for Internet infrastructure from a federal Capital Projects Fund created as part of the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan. This is one potential source of funding, Kirk said. Another bucket of at least $100 million will come to Massachusetts from the federal government, she said, without elaboration.

These sources of funding would be hard for Somerville to access, however, because the city already has Internet infrastructure; the city will have to prove there is some sort of deficiency in service quality, Kirk said.

Somerville applied Monday to join the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative’s Municipal Digital Equity Planning Program. It could provided the city with funding for a consultant to figure out the next steps for Somerville in terms of Internet equity, or making sure lower-income residents aren’t left on the wrong side of the digital divide.h

The committee’s goal is to put out a request for proposals on how to build a network, Clingan said. The next meeting is expected in January.

Linda Pinkow contributed to this report. Portions were taken from an article by Pinkow on the Somerville Wire.