Thursday, May 23, 2024

A Comcast Xfinity truck gets a refinement at the Seattle Pride Parade 2017. (Photo: Comcast Washington State via Flickr)

City-owned Internet would cost the city $150 million to around $194 million to build with the expense spread over several years, according to a presentation Monday. After a decision to go ahead, Cambridge would be fully wired within seven years, with up to two of those for preparation followed by five of installation – but neighborhoods could join on a rolling basis, starting in year one.

Installation moves as quickly as 500 feet or more a day, said consultants at a roundtable of the City Council.

“So I’d face a day or two of disruption directly?” councillor Burhan Azeem asked the experts from the firms of CTC Technology & Energy and Rebel. “It doesn’t sound like it would be as big of a construction project as I was initially worried about.”

Azeem was notable as a councillor saying his mind was changing, in this case toward liking the project. That’s in line with a summer survey in which a representative 66 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the city should facilitate building a fiber broadband network, even if it requires a tax subsidy.

“I was a little bit skeptical of municipal broadband because of the cost of $200 million and all this time and energy and effort,” Azeem said. “And the benefits weren’t clear to me. This conversation has been really helpful in convincing me otherwise.”

A city-owned network of fiber-optic cable would enable superfast 5G and 6G tech “and everything that comes beyond it,” president Joanne Hovis said, and “is considered future-proof,” meaning it would never have to be replaced. Because it’s city-owned, costs to subscribers would be lower. The models examined Monday found a sweet spot of market-rate users paying $70 a month for city-owned broadband – low-income customers would likely pay $30 – compared with current rates of more than $100 a month for homes and $500 a month for businesses.

In cities such as Cambridge, which is monopolized by the Internet provider Xfinity, upload speeds are squeezed to ensure users get zippy download speeds – useful when streaming a movie. The city-owned broadband would be “symmetrical,” with uploads that are just as fast.

Fiber-optics for the future

Some councillors said they needed to understand why this was worth a $150 million tradeoff, especially given other priorities such as housing.

They got answers befitting a city that likes to think of itself as a home for innovation: The fiber-optics on which good wireless depends will be “used to deliver services that we can’t imagine right now,” Hovis said.

“If we went back in time 100 years, we would be debating whether to pave the roads in Cambridge,” councillor Quinton Zondervan said. “In the case of broadband, it’s creating potential new business opportunities, learning opportunities and economic opportunities for our residents.”

Other benefits

There were also uses right now that profit from better upload speeds, including all the Zoom videoconferencing going on, said Patrick McCormick, Cambridge’s chief information officer.

The new cable would bring Internet in Cambridge to the level of what’s found in cities such as Palo Alto, California, and Austin, Texas, consultants said.

Even residents who declined city broadband would see a benefit, because companies such as Xfinity quietly lower prices to complete – sometimes even cutting prices preemptively when they hear there will be competition, the consultants said.

A public good

The dialogue also included discussion of being able to guarantee net neutrality, so the speed of some websites and services weren’t choked on purpose by companies playing favorites; and closing a digital divide exposed during the Covid pandemic when all kinds of work, education, appointments, the ordering of essentials and entertainment went online. In 2020, the school district discovered it had to supply Wi-Fi hotspots to students who lacked adequate Internet at home.

In most scenarios in which Cambridge owns its own fiber network, it could decide where to start installation and thus which neighborhoods could get the services first. Focusing on lower-income areas where more people would use the lower-paying tiers of $20 to $40 monthly might slow the return on investment, but the consultants modeled finances out to 2050 – and showed revenues outpacing expenses as soon as 2029 with only 40 percent of residents opting in.

Councillor Patty Nolan agreed that city-owned broadband was an investment and a public good. “We don’t ask people what’s the return on investment for paving our streets or building our schools,” Nolan said.

More work to be done

A full report prepared by city staff is due Tuesday, and more hearings are needed before a decision to proceed. That would launch 18 to 24 months of market research, selection of a business model and a partner, negotiations and bonding out the expenses before years of installation. There’s a “goal of having the entire city lit up within five years – again, that being a conservative estimate,” Hovis said.

Another possible wrinkle was raised by City Manager Yi-An Huang: “Maybe there are exciting opportunities to pursue with our neighboring cities.” Somerville officials are looking at city-owned Internet as well, going beyond the recommendations from their own 2018 task force.

“Where we are landing … is that this is financially feasible,” Huang said. “There’s a lot more work to be done. What we have found is there’s not a reason to stop.”

This post was updated March 16, 2023, to include the full feasibility report.