Monday, June 24, 2024

Eighty seven percent of Cambridge residents want a new competitor for their broadband business, according to a recent, statistically valid survey. But broadband, nationwide, is a market failure, with most Americans having no choice for their Internet service. When markets fail, as they have in Cambridge – where 80 percent customers are forced to use Comcast – our safety net is government intervention to restore competitive balance. Cambridge has long recognized this and in 2016 created the Cambridge Broadband Task Force. 

This spring, the city took another step along the path recommended by the task force with the release of a comprehensive yearlong feasibility study, Municipal Broadband in Cambridge: Feasibility and Business Model Options. This study recommends as the next step to engage with “the universe of potential commercial partners to validate the commercial feasibility of the project.” Upgrade Cambridge applauds the decision to move forward in the learning and analysis and encourages the city to conduct an open process that engages with a broad range of constituents, from residents to nonprofits and our local business community, all of whom could benefit from citywide municipal broadband.

The primary benefit of citywide municipal broadband is that it brings robust competition to the market. Comcast holds an 80 percent market share and, as described in the study, there is a “… relative lack of competition in the market.” As the detailed analysis makes clear, the economic structure of broadband reinforces a “natural monopoly.” No competitors will challenge Comcast alone. But a partnership with the city in which Cambridge retains clear ownership and control changes the economics and will mean that Cambridge residents and businesses will finally have a choice.

The benefits of competition would not just be realized by those choosing a municipal alternative. Comcast, facing real competition, would be forced to lower prices and improve services. These benefits, though never showing up on any financial analysis of municipal broadband, would save Cambridge residents real money.

Municipal broadband would also enable the city to implement widely accepted public policy goals. We can insist that municipal broadband respect net neutrality and privacy. Your browsing history will not be sold to the highest bidder, nor will favored access to your broadband be up for sale.

Most importantly, municipal broadband would allow the city to address digital equity directly. Our experience during the Covid pandemic highlighted the importance of reliable, fast and affordable Internet connections for everyone. While Federal Covid-era subsidies for broadband have provided a boost for some, those subsidies are set to end. With municipal broadband, the city could – and should – create a price structure that guarantees access for every household in Cambridge.

Municipal broadband is an infrastructure investment, much like the investments that the city makes each year in schools, roads and water and sewer projects. The result of this investment would be a superior performing, state-of-the-art, future-proofed, fiber-optic network that will last for many decades. Unless there is a revolution in physics, there will never be a transmission medium better than light beams over fiber. New network technologies can be deployed by upgrading transmission and reception hardware, not by touching the installed fiber. The value that investment brings includes improved economic opportunities for residents and businesses and improved quality of life for all, just like the other infrastructure investments made by the city.

When Upgrade Cambridge formed, we thought our first task would be to convince city residents of the value of municipal broadband. We quickly discovered we were wrong. As the feasibility study confirmed, 66 percent of residents believe that the city should facilitate building a broadband network, even if this requires tax subsidy. Upgrade Cambridge’s task then became one of keeping this process alive in the face of an obstructive city administration. With the unflagging support of our allies on the City Council and consistent public support, the result has demonstrated that a municipal broadband network in Cambridge is not only feasible, but wildly popular.

Cambridge today faces many issues, some quite divisive. Municipal broadband, however, is one that unites Cambridge through our shared values of social justice and equity. We urge the city to continue forward deliberately, openly and transparently. The council should insist on periodic progress reports and wide open public engagement.

It’s time to ensure that we have fast, reliable and affordable access to the internet for all of us in Cambridge.

Edward Loveall, Roy Russell, Rabbi Yoni Shtiebel and Saul Tannenbaum for Upgrade Cambridge