The Path To Municipal Broadband In Cambridge

Part 2: A Municipal Broadband Feasibility Study


Part 1 of this series reviewed the Cambridge Broadband Task Force process and the recommendations provided in a draft report of from Tilson, the consultants hired to assist the process. Part 2 provides an alternate recommendation, that Cambridge should proceed to a detailed feasibility study for a municipal broadband project.


Cambridge City Manager Richard Rossi asked the Cambridge Broadband Task Force to examine “options to increase competition, reduce pricing, and improve speed, reliability and customer service for both residents and businesses.” The option that provides the highest likelihood of success in that regard is municipal broadband.

Municipal broadband for Cambridge enjoys wide support. All nine sitting Cambridge City Councilors are on record as supporting investment of Cambridge resources to build a broadband network. Further, they’re on record supporting the use of those resources to provide broadband “regardless of the ability to pay.” Anecdotally, one finds that even Cambridge Republicans support municipal broadband, even volunteering that a tax increase to pay for it should be considered. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Building its own broadband system is something that Cambridge, credited with the creation of the internet, home to leading educational institutions and entering its second industrial age, just does. And, by confronting digital inclusion as a primary goal of a broadband project, Cambridge can lead the way in uniting technical progress with social justice goals.

Tilson, in its draft recommendations, doesn’t advocate for municipal broadband for reasons it does not explain. But, in its analysis of options, it provides a basis for judging whether a municipal broadband system is realistic. Cambridge, in its 5 year capital plan, includes approximately $140,000,000 each for a new school campus and sewer improvements. Tilson’s estimates for broadband range from $123,000,000 to $187,000,000. Municipal broadband, at first glance, falls within the range of civic investments that Cambridge carefully, albeit routinely, makes.

Tilson’s estimates for municipal broadband construction costs

A Municipal Broadband Feasibility Study

For all the data, frameworks, and case studies provided in the draft Tilson report, it does not answer what’s come to be a the key question: Can Cambridge build a municipal broadband system and make it a success?

While the investment in broadband is within the ballpark for a school or sewer investments, a critical difference is that Cambridge has extensive experience in building and operating schools and sewers. It has only very limited experience in building a fiber optic network, and needs to scale that knowledge dramatically.

One of the core weaknesses of the Tilson report is that it was asked to do too much. In an attempt to analyze everything, the report ends up concisely analyzing nothing. The next phase of planning should, instead, be completely focused on one option, municipal broadband. To assess its feasibility, the best possible municipal broadband plan should be written and its assumptions documented. The Tilson report doesn’t even begin to model revenues, doesn’t assess the question of whether a municipal system should include both cable TV and telephone service, doesn’t talk about price, and doesn’t talk about the the process of acquiring customers. All of these elements need to be assessed to develop a plausible economic case for building a municipal system.

A Framework For Planning

In keeping with the spirit of focus, a planning effort should adopt a set of principles to narrow its choices. These principles should include the following:

  • A fiber optic broadband network is basic infrastructure, necessary for Cambridge’s future.
  • Cambridge should build that network as a municipal project.
  • Cambridge seeks a network that is available to all, regardless of the ability to pay, and whose priorities and policies it controls.
  • Unless the technology and competitive environment changes, the plan should provide a symmetric gigabit, fiber-to-the-premises network, operated by the City as an open dark fiber network, with vendors providing retail services to City residents and businesses. This is not meant to preclude a municipally operated network, but seeks, for analytic purposes, to separate construction and ownership, from operation.
  • Broadband implementation will be segmented in phases in order to mitigate risks, allow the city to build internal capacity to manage and oversee this effort, and provide natural pauses in order to assess technological, competitive and other changes that might modify Cambridge’s plan.
  • The first phase should prioritize:
    - Access to broadband for economically marginalized communities, including CHA housing and other affordable housing
    - Projects in the city that would otherwise have to build their own telecommunications capacities, for example, centralizing control over traffic signals
  • In considering relationships with vendors and possible partners, the emphasis should be on local control, acknowledging that this places greater risks and costs on the City.

This planning effort needs to be well resourced and include broad public outreach. It needs to meet people where they are, whether that’s schools, universities, public housing, large employers, or the Cambridge Innovation Center. A municipal broadband system will find its maximal value only if the community and stakeholders are ready to use it in transformational ways. The planning process should be part of that make-ready process.

Cambridge should rapidly finish its current Phase 1 planning and move, expeditiously, to this Phase 2, a municipal broadband feasibility study.

But What About Wireless?

It’s impossible to talk about a wired broadband system without noting the advancement of wireless technologies. These include systems like Starry, which deploy older wireless technologies in new ways, and 5G, the wireless technologies expected to be deployed cell phone carriers. The Task Force has been urged to, like Wayne Gretzky, skate to where the puck will be.

“Predictions are hard, especially about the future.”- Neils Bohr or Yogi Berra

One thing that’s true for these technologies is that they are unproven, that there’s no deployment at all at scale. One other thing that might be true is that, over the course of a municipal broadband project, those technologies prove ready to face the test of the marketplace and either succeed or fail. If they succeed and provide a true replacement for a fiber optic broadband system, Cambridge might have spent needlessly. If they fail, Cambridge will look wise in having not succumbed to what will be seen as hype.

But the questions to ask about 5G wireless is not whether carriers are going to be putting up a lot of 5G antennas. They almost certainly will. Instead, one should look at what the barriers to actual adoption will be. All current mobile devices would need to be replaced by 5G capable devices. How will desktops and laptops connect? What are the business models for accounts? Will there be data caps? Will carriers seek revenue maximization or broad deployment?

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again. — George W. Bush

A bet on 5G is not just a bet on new technologies. It’s a bet that the marketplace of wireless is going to create set of business practices that will align with Cambridge’s goals for a local broadband network. That was a bet that the nation made when regulations for cable based internet were promulgated in the 90s. Our Comcast monopoly, as well as the nation-wide market failure, is a legacy of trusting the communications industry to have the best interests of communities at heart. One certainly needs to skate to where the puck will be, but what may be most important is redirecting the puck’s trajectory to one that’s more favorable to Cambridge.

The next meeting of the Cambridge Broadband Task Force is May 18th 6:00 PM, in Cambridge City Hall’s Sullivan Chamber.


The author is a member of, but not speaking for, the Cambridge Broadband Task Force.

Previous articles on the Cambridge Broadband process can be found here, here, here, here, and here.