Cambridge Explores Its Broadband Options

When You Come To A Fork In The Broadband Road, Take It

Cambridge’s Broadband Task Force held its sixth meeting last week, a meeting billed as important to setting directions for the last three scheduled meetings. The City, and its consultants from Tilson, had completed a phone survey of Cambridge as well as two community meetings to assess local needs. The agenda for this meeting was to review the input, reassess the goals set for a broadband project, and set out three options for the consultants to explore in more depth.

The Community Survey

Cambridge hired Opinion Dynamics to conduct a phone survey of 401 randomly selected residents to ask about broadband service. According to the results, only 5% of Cambridge residents lack broadband service.

As expected, the dominant residential internet provider is Comcast, with Verizon DSL a distant second. RCN is available in some areas that border Somerville, and Verizon FIOS can be found in limited numbers of larger apartment buildings where Verizon provides wholesale service to the property owner.

According to the survey, 54% of Cambridge households pay less than $250/month for a combination of telephone, television and broadband services. All Task Force members were surprised at the level of satisfaction survey respondents stated, as respondents seemed far more satisfied than anything heard anecdotally.

Questions were raised about the validity of the survey. For example, Census data for 2013 shows approximately 13% of Cambridge households had no broadband and, for 2014, 10% lacked broadband. Tilson was unable, at the meeting, to discuss the survey’s error of measurement or if the survey demographics matched the overall demographics of Cambridge.

Themes and Goals

The key question from the survey and community meetings was whether anything we heard would change our goals or approach

The Task Force thought that “affordability” didn’t fully address the issue of digital equity. Some also felt that complaints about broadband service were all a function of a lack of local control.

Options Moving Forward

When the Task Force was formed and consultants hired, the framework of its final product seemed straightforward: take three scenarios to expand broadband and provide high level cost estimates for the City. Three scenarios imply “small”, “medium”, and “large”, something that makes intuitive sense. Small and large are easy to define. The Task Force was specifically charged with looking into broadband for Cambridge Housing Authority properties, thus that becomes the “small” option. Many on the Task Force are inclined to a full municipal broadband solution, one supported by City Councillors. Having the City would build out and operate its own fiber optic network utility is the obvious “large” option. It’s finding an appropriate “middle” option that’s difficult.

For the middle option, Tilson offered a number suggestions. We could restrict the geographic scope of the project, wiring some portion of the City. That was instantly rejected by the Task Force. Wiring some neighborhoods but not others is simply not a viable political solution. Tilson suggested that providing conduit throughout the City — empty “pipes” that some network provider could fill with fiber optic cable–might be a good middle solution. But 70% of the City’s utilities are delivered from pole-mounted cables, not conduits.

The Many “Middle” Options

There are a wide spectrum of “middle” options that vary in the extent of the infrastructure the City would build and the business model used to operate that infrastructure.

The City could build:

  • a fiber optic network and provide the electronics, a “lit” network
  • a fiber optic network and not light it, “dark fiber”

That fiber network could:

  • extend to every business and residence in the City
  • extend to every premises in the City, connecting each building, but leaving the in-building connections to others
  • pass every premises in the City, leaving the connection to the building (a “lateral”) and in-building connections to others
  • pass within a certain distance of each premises, leaving the last distance, the lateral, and the in-building connection to others

As business model the City could:

  • operate a municipal broadband utility itself, just as it does with water and sewer services
  • contract with a third party to operate a broadband utility on behalf of the City
  • enter into an exclusive partnership with a third party who would operate a broadband service on the City owned and built network
  • operate an “open access” network with non-exclusive third parties who would operate competing broadband services on the City owned and built network

These choices will have significant impact on the success of any broadband effort. The more the City builds of a network, the more the build will cost, but the less friction there will be for each connection. If the City operates a utility, it will have the ultimate control over the service, but will also have to create a broadband services department.

As Tilson noted, these are not decisions that can, or should, be made now. But a presentation of three options in detail could prematurely focus the discussion on those three options to the exclusion of other, perhaps more viable, solutions. Having expressed those concerns, the Task Force left the meeting without a clear idea of what the middle option would be, leaving that to City staff and Tilson to decide.

The full Tilson presentation can be found here (pdf).

Where’s the School Department?

© Cambridge Public Schools

One of the concerns of the Task Force, as well as some in the community meetings, has been Cambridge school children. Increasing, technology and access to broadband, has been a requirement for participating in the curriculum, let alone pursuing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. According to City statistics, 40% of Cambridge students received free lunches, meaning their family’s income is no more than 130% of the federal poverty level. Do these students have access to broadband so that they can do homework at home? Are families choosing between broadband and other needs? If there is an imperative to providing better broadband in Cambridge, it’s not to allow higher quality Netflix streaming, it’s to meet the basic needs of all its residents. Presumably, the School Department has better insight into these needs, but they have been notably absent from Task Force and community meetings.

Where’s the Community?

One factor that separates successful broadband efforts from less successful one is public outreach. To date, outreach hasn’t succeeded getting more an a few members of the public to Task Force meetings. While we’ve scheduled meetings through the expected term of the Task Force, they’re not placed on the City calendar of events until shortly before the meeting. And, when they are posted, it’s with a generic agenda that doesn’t seek to engage:

There are also no minutes from meetings, making it impossible for anyone to follow the process without attending meetings.

The next Task Force meeting is scheduled for January 20th, 2016.