Three Options for Cambridge Broadband

The Cambridge Broadband Task Force met in January, beginning to craft its report on broadband options for the City. At the last meeting, the City’s consultant, Tilson, proposed that the report be organized around three options. This prompted significant resistance from the Task Force, as it seemed impossible to capture the variety of possibilities in three scenarios. The Task Force left the last meeting with a promise that the three options would be reconsidered. The result? A draft report (pdf) with three options: small, medium and large. And only one of them seems viable.

Three Broadband Options for Cambridge

Option 1: “Small” — provide fiber to Cambridge Housing Authority properties

The charge to the Task Force specifically included this option, hence, a response was required. But, if the goal is actually to provide broadband service to residents of Cambridge Housing Authority (CHA) properties, this option fails, as it proposes nothing to bring the fiber from wherever it terminates into residents’ homes. If the goal is to redress digital inequity, it fails because 65% of the affordable housing units in Cambridge lie outside CHA properties. In retrospect, the Task Force would have best served Cambridge by embracing the spirit of the mandate, and developed a plan that that met those goals, and not its precise specification.

Option 2: “Medium” — build a dark fiber backbone

This option proposes that Cambridge build approximately 7 miles of dark fiber and that it enter into an agreement with a third party to complete the network. This proposal is best understood as an indirect subsidy to that third party. Cambridge will have already built part of the network, so some entity that wished to wire Cambridge has to wire seven miles less of it. This strategy will be successful only if the subsidy provides a sufficient incentive to do the rest of the work. Or, to put it another way, the subsidy will have to be the difference between a viable business model and one that would not make money. Absent cost figures and economic modeling, it’s impossible to assess this plan. However, the seven miles of fiber represents 5% of what’s needed to wire Cambridge and the vast majority of the network build out costs will be in the “last mile” of connections to premises and residences. As presently designed, this seems like a small subsidy for a large expenditure, thus not one that will, in and of itself, create a viable business opportunity.

Option 3: “Big” — build a full network

This option is what many in Cambridge are hoping for, a complete buildout of a new fiber optic network, consisting of approximately 148 miles of fiber. But the proposal, in its draft form is agnostic about whether the network, as built, should terminate in each residence, or whether it just pass by, leaving the actual network drop to a third party. Assuming a full build out of a fiber network, there remain a range of business models for its operation. Should Cambridge operate the network as its own utility as it does water, sewer and the streets? Or should Cambridge enter into a contract with one (or more) network operators? Making a specific recommendation is certainly beyond the scope of this Task Force — there’s no time to deeply analyze the alternatives — but framing these alternatives is critically important to what comes next.

Business Models, Financing and Case Studies

The bulk of the draft report, 17 of its 21 pages, consists of descriptions of business models for the operation of a network, a variety of possibilities for financing, and a series of case studies. Two omissions were most telling:

  • Cambridge regularly finances capital improvements and maintains an AAA credit rating. This doesn’t happen by accident. It takes financial experts in City government applying a careful process. Their thoughts on financing options would far more valuable than an inventory of possible financial vehicles.
  • Missing from the case studies was Cambridge’s effort to provide wifi service to residents of Newtowne Court. There were many lessons learned in that effort, some directly applicable to the “small” network build proposed. Ironically, it was a volunteer effort to revive that wifi network that led, quite directly, to the proposal that Cambridge create the Broadband Task Force.

Indeed, what’s missing from these 17 pages is a core of Cambridge-centric analysis. Bringing together the current state of best business practices and financial models has value, but it’s also entirely generic. This discussion should be anchored in the “big” network option where it’s most relevant.

A more fundamental question, though, is who the audience was thought to be. If this report is to be the first introduction to the possibility of Cambridge building its own network, it needs to be a very different document.

An Accumulation of Process Problems

The meeting process for the Task Force has been informal and, as the Task Force moves to its final report, problems with this approach are becoming apparent. Meetings have neither a formal agenda nor a time budget. Specific decisions to be made are not called out, and formal notes not taken. Without this structure there’s neither scope nor finality. Time was spent at the last meeting discussing whether it would save costs to use MBTA right-of-ways for fiber runs. Value engineering fiber paths is not something the Task Force has the time to do.

A number of times, discussion cycled back to the question of fiber and whether a wireless solution, presumably less expensive, is possible. Three things are true about wireless:

  • Currently, there is no wireless solution capable of delivering high speed broadband to a city.
  • At some time in the future, there almost certainly will be.
  • The wireless base stations, whatever they turn out to be, will need to be connected to fiber.

There’s never been a formal decision that the Task Force’s recommendation be for a fiber optic network. Without that decision, the issue is never closed and comes up again and again.

Conversely, there’s been no tracking of open issues. Thus, questions raised by the Task Force about the citizen survey remain unanswered.

Do Any Of These Problems Actually Matter?

Taking a step back from the particulars of the Task Force mandate, it has a single functional role: provide the City with enough information to decide whether it’s worthwhile to proceed to the next phase of planning. From this perspective, the work is almost complete. As the case studies show, many cities are proceeding with their own broadband systems. There is reason for caution. Cities that are building broadband systems aren’t as complex or dense as Cambridge and start from a position of an existing utility system. These are issues on which to focus in the next phase of planning, but not reasons to stop planning. As the Task Force works to bring its report together, it’s also time to begin thinking about what a “Phase 2” should look like and how to make it stronger than Phase 1.

The next Broadband Task Force meeting is scheduled for March 2nd at 6PM in the Sullivan Chamber of Cambridge City Hall.

Previous articles about the Cambridge broadband process can be found here, here, here, and here.

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