With the larger goal of connecting the underserved in the city, advocates are pushing for a municipal network that could deliver connectivity at a reasonable cost.
(TNS) — With so much depending on the internet these days, broadband access is no longer a luxury, it's a necessity, a new grassroots organization claims. Upgrade Cambridge is seeking to make a city-owned network a reality, ensuring affordable internet access for all Cambridge residents.
"You can't apply for a job without access to the internet these days," Upgrade Cambridge Co-Founder Saul Tannenbaum said, adding that government benefits and school assignments often hinge on internet access.
However, this issue may not be at the forefront for some Cambridge residents who have come to accept internet access as a given, he said.
"I think one of Cambridge's real failings is that those of us who have had internet access for years, who put Comcast on auto-pay and don't really think about it, forget that it's not a given," Tannenbaum said. "We've just grown complacent."
He added, "Those who can't afford it -- we've left them behind in this digital economy of ours."
There are several models for how a municipal broadband network could function. One model suggests that the city run the network as it would any other utilities department, handling the maintenance and services internally.
Another system, which Tannenbaum prefers, would have the city own the network and contract it out to one or more service providers. This would allow the city to control the terms of service and set a rate structure based on ability to pay, but the specific provisions of service would fall to an existing company with expertise, he said.
The cost of setting up a new network would be approximately $180 million, according to an estimate from the City Manager's Broadband Task Force. However, Tannenbaum emphasized, this conservative estimate does not include any cost-saving measures.
One way to control costs would be to use subscription fees to finance the network, using those subscriptions to subsidize internet costs for households in need, rather than obtaining that funding solely from the city, Tannenbaum said.
"Municipal broadband sets up a revenue source so all this becomes self-sustaining," he explained. "In terms of digital equity, it sets up a sustainable framework to make the internet available to everybody. I mean, you have subscription revenue, and you can use that effectively to subsidize people who can't pay."
There are some cities already using a model of city-owned broadband, including Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Cedar Falls, Iowa. In these cities, the municipal network can also improve efficiency in other utilities. A University of Tennessee study found that in Chattanooga, between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs and roughly $1 billion in economic benefits for the city could be tied to the network.
Cambridge began exploring network alternatives in 2014 when the city manager appointed a Broadband Task Force. The task force produced a report with recommended next steps in 2016, but the city has yet to take action or respond to the report.
"Right now we're sort of in limbo," Tannenbaum said. "The city's broadband plans have been in limbo."
These next steps include working with affected low-income households to gauge their needs and create a solution that will be most effective for them. Tannenbaum added that Upgrade Cambridge wants to look into the financial side and break the project down into implementation phases, also engaging with the city's business community to assess its needs.
"If you're going to do something like this, there's an obligation to talk to as many people about it as possible before you make the decision," he explained.
However, in his research and outreach thus far, Tannenbaum has found a great deal of support from residents, especially those who work in internet-based industries, he said.
"The goal of Upgrade Cambridge is to demonstrate the level of support we believe municipal broadband has," he said. "In my experience talking with people, it's hard to find opposition."
Drawing upon grassroots campaign tactics such as canvassing, petitions and public meetings, Upgrade Cambridge is looking to push the city to act. The group will hold its first public meeting on March 20 to speak with community members and continue discussion.
"We're a single-issue group, and we hope to be a short-lived single-issue group," Tannenbaum said. "If we're successful, a year from now we won't even exist anymore."
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