The Path To Municipal Broadband In Cambridge

Part 2: A Municipal Broadband Feasibility Study

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?

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:

  • 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.

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.

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.

Citizen Journalist, Activist, Instigator, Publisher:, a #CambMA news aggregator. Find my writings at

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