Upgrade Cambridge Pushes for Municipal Broadband, Equitable Internet Access

Upgrade CambridgeSaul Tannenbaum. Photo by Irina M. / IM Creative Photography.

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 intersection 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.

Tannenbaum sees municipal broadband as the best avenue to securing free internet for lower-income residents 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.

The city manager has not responded directly to Upgrade Cambridge’s efforts, according to Tannenbaum.

A spokesperson for the city tells Scout that creating a municipal broadband network is “not possible.”

“The potential for a $200 million capital investment to build a fiber to the premise broadband system in Cambridge make such a project not possible,” Director of Communications and Community Relations Lee Gianetti told Scout in an email. “The City’s commitment to addressing affordable housing, expanding early childhood education, investing in safe street infrastructure, a $500 million school reconstruction program, and improving the conditions of municipal facilities, like fire stations (to name a few), are substantial financial investments and funding for a municipal broadband system would directly compete with these priority areas.”

Gianetti says that despite Comcast’s monopoly, city officials don’t perceive that residents see creating a municipal broadband network “as a critical issue.”

The City of Cambridge is working to identify other options to address digital equity, according to Gianetti.

Tannenbaum argues that there’s support for municipal broadband both among residents and city councilors, and 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.

The ACLU published a report earlier this year called “The Public Internet Option,” which argues that municipal broadband networks are a good way for cities to maintain net neutrality and privacy given the federal government’s negation of protections. Upgrade Cambridge hosted Jay Stanley, the report’s main author, for a discussion in May.

This story appeared in the Do Gooders, Key Players, and Game Changers issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription. A previous version of this article was published online on March 15.

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