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Worcester, Mass., Proposes Citywide Broadband Task Force

According to a report by the Worcester Regional Research Bureau this summer, nearly one-third of Worcester households did not have broadband, while nearly a fifth of all households had no Internet access at all.

by Nick Kotsopoulos, Telegram & Gazette / September 18, 2020
Worcester, Mass. Shutterstock/Sean Pavone

(TNS) — Looking to address the digital divide that exists in the city, the City Council Urban Technologies, Innovation and Environment Committee Thursday night called for the establishment of a task force to look at the feasibility of implementing a municipally owned broadband network.

In asking for the task force, the three-member committee is asking City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. to consider including municipal employees and stakeholders from the community.

The committee also asked the city's Technical Service Department to provide a report on what options the city might have to developing such a broadband system.

District 5 Councilor Matthew E. Wally, committee chair, said some options that should be considered is partnering with local colleges, the cost of such a system and looking at specific areas of the city that are in immediate need improved Internet access.

"There is a digital divide that exists in this city," Wally said. "This could be an opportunity for us to bring more equity throughout the city from an education, economic and public health perspective."

Broadband Internet in Worcester is currently offered solely by Charter/Spectrum, but some say that has created inequitable access to speedy Internet service in the city.

According to a report by the Worcester Regional Research Bureau this summer, nearly one-third of Worcester households did not have broadband, while nearly of fifth of all households had no Internet access at all.

"The need in Worcester is real," said Paul Matthews, executive director of the research bureau, in reference to broadband service. "There is a gap in Internet connectivity. The city effectively depends on Charter/Spectrum for that service."

The research bureau report concluded that Worcester should investigate providing its own broadband network, despite the high cost of providing such a service.

Matthews said a municipally owned broadband network would be in addition to the service provided by Charter/Spectrum. He added, however, that the development of such a network would require a large investment on the city's part and taking on certain risks that are now taken on by just the private sector.

Tom Quinn, a research associate with the research bureau, said 67% of households in the city have broadband Internet subscriptions, while 18% have no Internet access. That became a big issue in the spring when the Worcester Public Schools had to switch to remote learning because of COVID-19.

"These gaps are not evenly distributed geographically," Quinn told the committee.

According to the research bureau report, more than 560 municipalities nationwide run their own Internet networks, including Shrewsbury. Other state communities that do so include Concord, Leverett, Braintree, Chicopee and Westfield.

The report acknowledged, however, that cost will be a factor in the city's decision, if it chooses to explore a municipal network.

The committee was told that other communities, including Springfield, Cambridge, Salem, Haverhill and Quincy, are also looking into the feasibility of municipally owned Internet services. In Springfield, the cost of building out such a network was pegged at about $50 million while the cost in Cambridge was estimated at about $185 million.

Quinn said the research bureau does not have the expertise to arrive at an estimate for what a broadband network might cost in Worcester. He said the city would need to hire a technical expert to determine that.

Matthews said several factors go into creating a cost estimate, include population density and topography.

Because of the potentially high cost involved, Councilor-at-Large Kathleen M. Toomey said the city might first want to look at focusing on those areas of the city in immediate need of Internet services.

Meanwhile, District 3 Councilor George J. Russell said many of those communities that have municipal Internet networks also have their own electric light companies. As a result, it is easier and less costly for them to also provide Internet services because they already have the infrastructure, equipment and personnel already in place.

Russell said one of his major concerns is the large investment the city would have to make.

He said the city should be looking into the future and get a sense on what the technology will be five years from now. He said the use of wires for Internet and cable services may become obsolete by then.

Toomey also suggested that the city pursue federal and state grant programs that might be available for municipal broadband programs.

Eileen M. Cazaropoul, the city's chief information officer who heads the Technical Services Department, said state funding that is available for broadband is focused more on rural areas of the state that do not have as many options as other communities.

She added that a municipal broadband system requires additional investments even after it is in place because it will have to be continually maintained and modernized going forward.

©2020 Telegram & Gazette, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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