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Cambridge Exploring Options for Implementing Municipal Broadband, Per March Report

Cambridge City Hall is located at 795 Massachusetts Ave. in Central Square.
Cambridge City Hall is located at 795 Massachusetts Ave. in Central Square. By Thomas Maisonneuve
By Jina H. Choe and Samuel P. Goldston, Crimson Staff Writers

The City of Cambridge is exploring the feasibility of implementing municipal broadband for residents, according to a report released last month.

Released on March 15, the report examined the possibility of creating a city-owned “fiber-to-the-premises” broadband network. FTTP is an internet access system relying on physical fiber optic cables running from the provider to households, which is generally faster and more reliable than other internet delivery options.

The report’s completion is the latest step in a yearslong campaign by advocates and policymakers to bring municipal broadband in Cambridge.

If municipal broadband is fully implemented by the city, the report estimates a necessary upfront investment of $150 million under “relatively conservative assumptions.” The report noted that partnering with a private company would decrease these costs.

The report also outlined four potential business models for the new broadband network. One option is full city ownership and operation, in which a public entity would build the FTTP and provide service.

Two other plans would have the city build the physical network, while private companies would provide internet service. The report’s fourth option is a public-private partnership, in which a private company would build and operate the new network with city oversight.

Former City Manager Louis A. DePasquale ordered the report, which was produced by CTC Technology & Energy and Rebel Group. Calls for the report originated in large part from concerns over high prices resulting from Comcast Corporation’s 80 percent share of the current Cambridge network market.

In an interview, City Councilor Patricia M. “Patty” Nolan ’80 described herself as “a big fan of municipal broadband.”

“You wouldn’t have a modern city without providing water to everybody, so we shouldn’t have a modern city without providing broadband to everyone,” she said. “And should it really be the domain of the private sector? I don’t think so.”

Kristen L. Roberts, a spokesperson for Comcast, wrote in a statement that the company provides fast broadband services to “every neighborhood and every street in the City of Cambridge.”

“Removing barriers like lack of devices and digital skills training should be where the city steers its digital equity investments, rather than into duplicative networks run by a local government with many other pressing issues to address,” she wrote. “Comcast will continue working with the many community organizations committed to solving for barriers to broadband adoption so we can get every Cambridge resident connected and close the digital divide.”

Roy P. Russell — co-founder of Upgrade Cambridge, an advocacy organization raising public awareness and support for municipal broadband — said the organization is not “ready to step back at all” following the release of the report.

“If we have to step up and make a lot of noise with public input and so on, then we certainly can,” he said.

Russell said he believes the city missed an opportunity to incorporate more public input in the report, adding that city discussion on municipal broadband is “still very opaque.”

“The study was done in relative secrecy. That was one of our main complaints about it,” he said. “It’d be great to have a group of interested community members that were involved in the process.”

Nolan said she spoke with a local resident who raised concerns over the cost that the city would pay for municipal broadband, but Nolan said she believes the price tag is worth the benefits of the service.

“I don’t mind spending that much money for municipal broadband because I know we’re spending that much money just to build one school building,” Nolan said. “It is, I think, proof-positive that it is a well-spent investment for us to do.”

—Staff writer Jina H. Choe can be reached at jina.choe@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Samuel P. Goldston can be reached at samuel.goldston@thecrimson.com.

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