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Cambridge, Mass., Wants Low-Income Internet Access by 2025

A “tangible” push to supply thousands of low-income residents with city-owned broadband is prompting some in the community to ask the city council for a more ambitious approach.

by Adam Sennott, Wicked Local Metro / May 9, 2018
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(TNS) — The city of Cambridge, Mass. is looking to provide affordable broadband services to thousands of low-income residents by 2025. But some argue the city's goals should be more ambitious.

The city council voted Monday to have City Manager Louis DePasquale work with the Cambridge Housing Authority and other agencies to ensure the city's public housing complexes have affordable broadband access, analyze the feasibility and impact of utilizing or expanding the city-owned fiber optics network, and review the city's dig-once policy to ensure optimal installation of conduits for leased access by third-party ISPs, according to the policy order. High-speed broadband is currently not available in Cambridge, and more than 5,000 residents do not have internet service.

The proposal would provide residents with internet access ranging from $15 a month for the slowest speed and $100 for the fastest speed, according to the policy order. The council is also aiming to ensure all high school students have access to affordable internet service by 2020.

Advocates: Broadband is social justice issue

Kevin Donaher, of Chestnut Street, said he pays Comcast more than $1,000 a year for internet access, which he said is more than he pays for electricity or transit. He called telecommunications a "natural monopoly" and not treating it as such has resulted in slower, more expensive service than other parts of the developed world.

"Relying on privatized communication infrastructure is a Reaganite fever dream that is as fundamentally insane as privatized sewers," Donaher said.

He also said councilors should be more ambitious with their goals.

"Our definition of affordable broadband access should include net-neutrality and privacy protections," Donaher said. "Because the internet should be the most open, democratic communication method in human history, not a distribution method for a small range of sponsored content or a means of giving advertisers NSA-like spying powers."

Christopher Schmidt, a Laurel Street resident who spoke on behalf of Upgrade Cambridge, which advocates for municipal broadband access, lauded the council for setting quantitative goals and deadlines to meet them. However, he called the policy order insufficient because it aims for the program to be revenue-neutral or revenue-positive.

"It is extraordinary that the city would consider working on a critical social justice issue only if it doesn't cost money," Schmidt said. "The council should demand an explanation from the city on why it considers this issue one in which no money should be spent when we spend on so many other important social justice issues to make the city a better place."

Saul Tannenbaum, co-founder of Upgrade Cambridge, said the policy order is the first step the city has taken toward digital equity in a dozen years.

"It is critically important that the city take the step of assessing its digital equity issues," Tannenbaum said.

Councilor: City setting 'tangible goals'

Councilor Quinton Zondervan acknowledged that the the exact pricing for internet services listed in the policy order may change over time, and that those figures were chosen to give a definition of what affordable internet access is now.

"It's really more a definition of what do we mean by affordable right now," Zondervan said. "It's certainly not meant to say this is going to be true forever."

"That's why we have very short-term goals in here for 2020 and 2025 to say we're willing to address this inequity right now, but the conversation will continue as to how we can over the longterm provide faster service as that comes online," Zondervan said.

While Vice Mayor Jan Devereux acknowledged that the comments from members of Upgrade Cambridge and other residents is what the city should strive for, she also said that she doesn't want to see "the best be the enemy of the good."

"[We're] at least starting to put some tangible goals on paper and work toward those, while at the same time we're also looking at the bigger picture," Devereux said.

©2018 Wicked Local Metro, Needham, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.