With a financial feasibility study of the city-owned internet underway, a network that seems more realistic and a new city manager in place, the dynamic Monday at a roundtable of officials was in some ways flopped years Past: City Manager Yi-An Huang seemed more enthusiastic about city broadband than some city councilors.
“It is no secret that the previous administration had significant concerns about the impact a municipal broadband system could have,” and it took significant pressure from councilors to launch a study , Huang said on Monday. “It’s a very exciting opportunity.”
The construction of a network would take more than four years, according to testimony during the round table, even if certain neighborhoods could be given priority. Vice Mayor Alanna Mallon said she was “excited but sad” to hear the estimate after five years of resistance from staff, with Councilor Patty Nolan agreeing “it’s a bit frustrating”. Because if we had done this before…that four-year deadline, we would have done it.
Even so, the need to start deciding doesn’t come until early 2023. The original timeline for a final report was this fall, but Huang told advisers of the final report date that “we’re a little behind “. [but] pushing hard to do it as soon as possible.
Detailed cost estimates require more effort “due to the remarkable uncertainty in today’s market regarding labor and materials,” said Joanne Hovis, president of CTC Technology & Energy, the consultant hired. by the city for the feasibility study. “The level of demand is simply unprecedented in the 25 years of the commercial Internet that fiber has been built to the home.” More work is needed to ensure the numbers are as strong and viable as possible, she said.
On hold since 2016
Residents have been waiting since a city-run task force concluded its work in September 2016 with a suggestion for the study; Councilman Quinton Zondervan said he remembers talking about municipal broadband with City Manager Robert W. Healy about a decade ago.
A survey conducted this summer by the CTC found that 66% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the city should facilitate the construction of a fiber broadband network, even if it required tax subsidies, which Hovis called “exceptionally high” compared to similar markets. Cambridge has a higher than average working-from-home population, officials noted during Monday’s roundtable.
The survey figures were similar when comparing respondents who owned and rented their homes – 61% to 68% – but dropped when looking at residents who already had a second option for the internet, suggesting that the popularity of municipal broadband owes much to their dislike of Comcast, which runs Xfinity. Eighty-seven percent of respondents simply wanted citywide competition for Internet business. (Starry, one of the few other players here for low-income residents of Cambridge Housing Authority homes, is struggling financially.) People said they would be more excited about getting subscribe between $30 and $70 per month.
“Cambridge, despite being a hub of technological innovation, is a virtual monopoly for Comcast, which provides average quality internet service – which I subscribe to,” Huang said.
Nolan, looking at the information presented by CTC, was newly disappointed with Comcast. “I have to go see our bill, because I think we’re overpaying,” Nolan said. “We’re not getting the advertised speeds that Comcast says they [provide]. We have checked them over and over again.
Some of the fiber Comcast used was laid in the 1980s, but its network is still “very good,” Hovis said. The company and its peers are also considering a series of nationwide upgrades that will “almost certainly position the cable industry to compete vigorously” against what the city could provide technologically.
Consumer advocates say it will also likely lead to higher prices for consumers; Huang and Hovis said having a competitor in town might be the only way to keep prices low, and Comcast’s competitors have refused to bid for business in Cambridge for the past three decades.
Partnership or utility
The CTC’s presentation steered Cambridge toward exploring partnerships with private companies — even with Comcast — because the most successful fully independent city-owned broadband operations have their own municipal electric utilities. Building a fiber network is easier when the city has its own utility poles, which isn’t the case in Cambridge, which the consultants say will require a 130.3-mile fiber road network, including 62.1% on the surface. And for home or business installation, maintenance, and the ability to respond to subscribers with technical issues, Cambridge “should expand or more likely purchase those capabilities,” Hovis said. “Cities that were already public energy cities certainly seem to have had an advantage in terms of infrastructure capabilities, capacity, funding capability, and a variety of other things that put them in a position to build these networks and to exploit them… Have an existing [municipal] utility is a game-changer; develop a new one, not necessarily.
Although this would not place existing utility poles under city ownership, the city could take a hybrid step to form a “municipal lighthouse”. Nolan said the council could hold an initial vote “very soon” to give city staff the option to create one if the broadband study suggests so.
City lighting installations are being investigated by the legal department, city attorney Nancy Glowa said, and Huang didn’t exactly say no to the idea: “My only concern is maybe that the Municipal lighting installation site is still a bit of a lift in terms of council and staff time,” Huang said. “It’s probably safe to wait for the final report.”
Although Zondervan called on the city to dismantle its own water service, he wondered on Monday whether having a water service could help compensate for the lack of electricity service, for example leveraging its billing infrastructure.
“The earlier we start, the better,” Zondervan said.
take a step back
There were also advisers expressing more caution.
‘You’re probably pretty close to a mandate’ for city-owned broadband given survey responses, Councilor Marc McGovern said – but people might feel differently after years of roadwork to install fiber , and questions remain about operating costs. Core Member E. Denise Simmons wanted assurances about lower-income residents’ bill relief and answers about how municipal broadband would affect seniors who wanted their Comcast cable just for TV. Youngest council member Burhan Azeem, meanwhile, was not immediately sold on Hovis’ promise of “balanced” upload and download speeds, which the city could deliver, but not Comcast. “I download a lot of Netflix movies; I don’t do a lot of Netflix movies,” Azeem said, though he’s excited about the idea of enabling virtual reality and even robotic surgery. “Cambridge really deserves a high-speed internet connection.”
Councilor Paul Toner, who wanted the city manager to provide a recommendation in 2023 with an FAQ and pros and cons, seemed the most skeptical. “I just want to take a step back. This whole conversation has been ‘Just give us the bill, because we’re going to do it,’ and we still have a lot of issues that we have to struggle with,” Toner said.
While no staff or CTC member was ready to give an estimate on Monday of construction, operating costs and the bond that would pay them, Toner said he believed an update to May had suggested a figure of around $150 million.
Former City Manager Louis DePasquale, in the only time he has publicly spoken about his years of opposition to a study, said in May 2020 that he feared “a million dollar investment [in a study] leading to a billion dollar investment” in broadband. This made the figure Toner overheard a relative bargain and half the cost of the last school building in town.
The CTC contract was for $465,000.
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