Monday, May 27, 2024

A consultants’ report with scenarios for a municipally owned broadband system (“Results of municipal broadband feasibility study: City-owned Internet has big pluses and price tag,” March 13) had a critical omission: a justification for why the city should even be considering such an investment. The first order of business needs to be what the motivation is for a very costly, high-risk venture that would be a municipally owned broadband system.

  • Is it, as has been the case with some other small cities, that Cambridge was totally or partially bypassed by commercial broadband providers such as AT&T, Spectrum or Comcast?
  • Is it because Cambridge finds it cannot attract business due to a lack of broadband infrastructure?
  • Is it because the cost of broadband for residences is out of reach of too many households?
  • Is it because poor neighborhoods or households do not have access to affordable broadband?
  • Or is it because some users need a service faster than the gigabit service available to residences and small businesses today. Are households being stymied in online education or streaming movies due to insufficient broadband to the household?

There is some overlap in these questions. But the answers are unambiguous.

First, Cambridge is fully wired. Every household, apartment building and business has ready access to at least Comcast and in many places two or more broadband providers. There are no Internet deserts. There have been no blocks bypassed.

Second, certainly businesses and large institutions have not complained about the lack of sufficient broadband. We have not lost businesses to Boston or other cities due to insufficient digital connections.

Are Cambridge’s Internet connections slow by today’s standards? Comcast, the largest provider, offers a range of connection speeds capped at different prices, but even the basic service is sufficient for Zoom calls, streaming movies and TV shows, certainly email or access to news and government websites. There will always be a small number of users who want more. Today that might be for gamers who indulge in real-time games, where a few nanoseconds of additional speed might help. But more bandwidth will not do much for most households unless one is buying into the widespread adoption of the “metaverse” in the foreseeable future. But even then, existing providers have been upgrading their networks consistently to meet the preponderance of consumer needs.

Is the price for existing services too high? Of course, almost everyone would like to pay less for whatever they buy. But in multiple surveys, cost has not been the most salient factor for the vast majority of households. And the price in the basic scenario projected for the municipal system, $70 (without specifying what level of service that would provide), is not dramatically less than current commercial rates. (For Comcast, which also offers cable TV as well as landline telephone service over the same wires as broadband, the cost of the broadband portion is lower than subscribing to the same level of service as broadband alone. This makes perfect economic sense, as one wire and one bill cover multiple services, spreading the operating cost for that household over multiple revenue streams. A municipal broadband system will have to cover all the costs of the infrastructure and operations from a single revenue stream). In any event, price can’t be the main motivation.

Are lower-income households priced out of broadband in Cambridge? Certainly, there is a small proportion of households that might find paying for broadband impinges on their limited income. On the other hand, the federal government has been promoting subsidized connections for low-income households. Comcast provides free (including hardware) 100MB service as well under the federal Affordable Connectivity Program. Those who qualify under this program may chose another level of service and get a $30 per month subsidy. It may not buy the fastest speeds but does provide the wherewithal for Zooms, classroom videos, email and even a streaming service.

So, why does Cambridge seem hell-bent on undertaking such a high-cost, high-risk venture? This must be asked especially in light of the greater competition from Starry and early wireless providers, such as T-Mobile, which offers moderate broadband speeds over 5G wireless for $50 per month (less $30 for low-income households).

If the motivation is simply to create a competitor to Comcast, this is a very expensive way to accomplish whatever marginal improvements in service or prices a municipal broadband service would bring. It would be far less costly to reexamine the regulatory conditions in Cambridge that have discouraged Verizon to bring in their 5G broadband service, as it has just across the Charles River.

And if the real need is to get gigabit service to the lowest-income households, it would seem that a program of city subsidies atop federal subsidies would be cheaper and more immediate than the years it would take to get there even with a municipal system.

As we cited in the Broadband Task Force report in 2026, there is not one example of a city the size of Cambridge that has successfully created a municipally owned stand-alone broadband system that has not been a huge money pit. (Note that a few systems have been successful only when they did not have to compete with an existing broadband provider or were added to an existing municipally owned electric utility that already had conduits and wires strung, trucks for service calls, a billing system and a call center.)

While a full overlay municipal broadband system might eventually bring small marginal improvements in prices and service (assuming that whatever operating entity employed – city employees or an outsourced private sector business – could run the system more efficiently than current providers), it is a massive stretch to justify the cost to the city and the risk involved. 

The city’s consultants identified four possible implementation scenarios. What they omitted was a fifth scenario. That would be to calculate what it would cost the city to get whatever broadband connections it thinks should be made available to the lowest-income households without resorting to a massive infrastructure project and creating a bureaucracy to run it – or monitor an outsourced private provider.

Cambridge should start by articulating a prioritized accounting of its most critical broadband needs and look at how they may be accomplished though existing and potential providers, as well as publicizing options for low-income households, before jumping to what would seem to be the most complex, expensive and risky “nuclear option” of funding a municipal system.

Ben Compaine has been a Cambridge resident for 44 years. He served on the City Manager’s Broadband Task Force from 2014 to 2016.