Grassroots Organization Pushes for Municipal Broadband

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A group of residents banded together under the name Upgrade Cambridge are lobbying the city to create a municipal broadband network.

Co-founder Saul Tannenbaum has devoted his time to issues at the crossover of technology and politics since retiring from his IT job eight years ago. He served on the city’s Broadband Task Force from 2014 to 2016, which was charged with exploring solutions to two problems: inequitable access to internet and Comcast’s monopoly in the city.

Over 89 percent of households in Cambridge, Boston, and Newton that have an income of more than $20,000 have broadband access, according to GOVERNING. That number dips to 56.4 percent for households below the $20,000 income line, the data shows.

For those who are able to afford internet access, Comcast is often the sole provider. The lack of competition means that there isn’t a built-in incentive for Comcast to improve its prices or services.

“This is a market failure,”  Tannenbaum says. “It’s going to require intervention from the city to do something.”

The task force determined that the best way to address the two problems was for the city to develop a municipal broadband system, according to Tannenbaum. The task force presented its findings to the city manager and the City Council in 2016, and Tannenbaum says the task force never received a formal response to the proposal.

A spokesperson for the city did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Tannenbaum sees municipal broadband as the best avenue to securing free internet for lower-income residents who can’t afford access because it represents a permanent investment rather than a subsidy that the city would have to make to a company again and again.

“Cambridge can do it itself, and then actually have some control of the outcome and keep a good chunk of the revenue in Cambridge and use it for Cambridge purposes,” Tannenbaum says.

The task force found that implementing a municipal broadband network would cost a maximum of $180 million, according to Tannenbaum, who doesn’t see the price tag as insurmountable.

“Cambridge makes social investments of that size fairly regularly,” he says, noting that the project would receive funding in the form of subscription fees.

Tannenbaum says that there’s support for municipal broadband both among residents and city councilors, but he hopes that Upgrade Cambridge can make the project more of a priority.

“Cambridge has articulated the goal that all residents should have access to the burgeoning Cambridge economy, and I don’t know how you do that without internet access,” Tannenbaum says.

Upgrade Cambridge will host its first meeting on March 20 at the Central Square branch of the public library at 7 p.m.