A Fiery Broadband Advocate's Crusade for Digital Equality

He takes a sip of ice water then leans forward, bracing his forearms against his knees and lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper: “But this is personal for anyone who has to deal with Comcast.”
By Andrew W.D. Aoyama

Saul I. Tannenbaum never planned to become a municipal broadband activist. “I just kind of fell into it,” he says. “It wasn’t as if I always knew that I was going to be a fiery broadband advocate — it just grew organically.” He takes a sip of ice water then leans forward, bracing his forearms against his knees and lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper: “But this is personal for anyone who has to deal with Comcast.”

Tannenbaum leads a grassroots group called Upgrade Cambridge that advocates for the adoption of a city-wide municipal broadband network. Throughout much of Cambridge, Comcast maintains a monopoly on broadband infrastructure, which provides constant access to high-speed internet. New competitors are deterred by the high cost of installing the cables that run underground and connect to in-home internet routers, often leaving consumers with only one option.

For that reason, Upgrade Cambridge lobbies for the city to construct its own municipal network. Since a municipal system would be accountable to the local community and not a corporation, the group claims that it would provide faster and cheaper access to broadband connection.

Many liken municipal broadband to the public water system: Cambridge builds and operates the pipes, facilitating easy and reliable access across the city. Though Tannenbaum would prefer to outsource the operations of the proposed system to an established internet service provider, the sentiment of equitable access persists.

“Economically marginalized people — people who have trouble applying for benefits, looking for jobs, or participating in the booming Cambridge economy — will have more opportunities after this,” Tannenbaum argues. He cites data from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which demonstrates that, while nearly all high income households in Cambridge have access to broadband, only half of residents below the poverty line purchase subscriptions.

Upgrade Cambridge is not Tannenbaum’s first foray into what he refers to as “digital equity.” In 2014, Tannenbaum helped form the Broadband Task Force, a committee under the Cambridge City Manager’s Office that studied broadband access across the city. The committee’s final report, published in August 2016, recommended that Cambridge seriously consider implementing a municipal broadband system and encouraged conducting a feasibility study.

Yet, to the ire of Tannenbaum and other Upgrade Cambridge activists, City Manager Louis A. DePasquale has taken no action since the report’s release. “[DePasquale] seems to have forgotten that there’s revenue here,” Tannenbaum says. “The experiences of other cities show that the revenues of subscription — if done correctly — will pay for the construction and operation of the system and subsidize access for low-income people.” He glances downward and shakes his head. “Why he’s forgotten that, I don’t know.”

In an emailed statement, Cambridge Director of Communications Lee Gianetti defended the city’s policy, suggesting that the City Manager remains committed to digital equity but intends to pursue it through different means. “The potential for a $200 million capital investment to build a fiber to the premise broadband system in Cambridge and millions more to run and maintain a broadband system is not in the City’s financial plan,” Gianetti wrote. “Funding of a municipal broadband system would have a direct impact on existing priority areas,” including expanding early childhood education and affordable housing, he wrote.

Potential costs aside, many of the plan’s supporters are as motivated by their frustrations with Comcast as they are by the potential benefits of municipal broadband. “The overwhelming reality is that Comcast keeps raising its prices, but it doesn’t increase the services that you get,” says Nancy M. Ryan, who says she has been a Comcast customer for as long as the company has provided broadband access in Cambridge. “They’ll give you a deal for a year or two, and then all of the sudden you get a bill that’s 20 percent or 30 percent higher than your previous bill — suddenly your special deal will have disappeared,” she continues, exasperated.

Tannenbaum, also a customer, corroborates her experiences. “It’s terrible!” he says, shaking his head. The ice water long since forgotten, his tone becomes more and more impassioned as he airs his grievances. “It’s overpriced, the service is of poor quality, and it’s hell every time you need customer service!”

Tannenbaum’s concerns extend beyond his monthly bill. “Comcast wants to be Facebook,” he says. “It’s true for all the big broadband companies — they’ve maxed out how much money they can make from broadband connections, and now they want to become digital advertisers,” he continues. Under the municipal model Tannenbaum has proposed, Cambridge could prohibit the collection and monetization of personal data in their contracts with internet service providers.

“Comcast operates in a highly competitive marketplace, and we value, appreciate, and are grateful for all of our customer relationships in Cambridge,” Comcast Spokesperson Doreen I. Vigue wrote in an emailed statement. “To that end, we continue to update our advanced network in the city, where we’ve invested in a multi-million dollar expansion to reach new businesses.“

Nonetheless, Ryan hopes that a municipal broadband network would be more accountable to her community. “I’m tickled pink that we can finally get this out of the hands of Comcast,” she says, referencing Upgrade Cambridge’s advocacy work. “I was a part of a women’s activist group when the first cable franchise was going up [for bid] 30 years ago,” she recalls. “We actually tried to get a municipally owned system at that time, and when the city council wouldn’t pass it, we took it to the ballot. We had the whole cable industry against us, and we were about a dozen women doing bake sales to raise money to print fliers and educate the community,” she says, a touch of pride in her voice.

“We lost by 43 votes — but there was a victory in the sense that we put up a fight against an industry that was flooding people’s mailboxes with notices that would say things like “Danger! Danger! Danger! You don’t want the city to run your cable system; they don’t know what they’re doing,”” she adds.

Tannenbaum and Upgrade Cambridge have taken Ryan’s fight into the modern era, matching her energy and pushing for a response from the city. “I’m tickled pink by what they’re doing!” she repeats.

— Magazine writer Andrew W. D. Aoyama can be reached at andrew.aoyama@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewAoyama.

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