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Quincy, Mass., Eyes Open Access Network for Internet—and More

Quincy, Mass., believes its residents deserve more Internet service options. Rather than run its own broadband utility, the city plans to own an open access network where competition and automation will reign.

Closeup of glowing fiber optic cable.
Quincy, Mass., wants to give its residents a deceptively simple thing: the ability to choose an Internet service provider (ISP) that best fits one’s needs and budget.

To accomplish this goal, Quincy plans to follow the model of Ammon, Idaho, which utilizes a city-owned open access fiber network where multiple ISPs compete for customers.

Quincy, a suburb of Boston with just less than 100,000 residents, is now reviewing network design and construction proposals from five organizations. For the office of Mayor Thomas Koch, the new network can’t come soon enough. Chris Walker, chief of staff for the mayor, said broadband is probably the biggest constituent-based issue in Quincy based on the many phone calls his office has received since Koch became mayor in 2008.

Without city-owned infrastructure, the office will continue to feel like its hands are tied when it comes to addressing residents’ Internet problems.

“Usually we can develop a project and take care of an issue, whether it’s a water line or a sewer line, potholes … when it comes to fiber and cable, it’s a different ballgame, so we’ve always felt a little handcuffed that folks call us and ask about what options they have in the city, and basically there’s one option,” Walker said.

“We prefer to own the issue … we want to be able to go out and fix it,” he added.

Walker said “Business 101” suggests that competition from other ISPs will improve the average level of service for citizens. Quincy is also not expecting to see the last of its incumbent provider, Comcast, by any means.

“If there is a second provider in the city, that will only improve the resident provider,” Walker said. “They’ll have to adjust. My sense is that they will make efforts to corner their share of the market, which is totally fine and expected.”

Quincy’s Broadband Journey

As reported by The Patriot Ledger, City Councilor Ian Cain has been pushing for a broadband solution in Quincy since mid-2018. Cain helped the city connect with EntryPoint Networks, the company responsible for assisting Ammon with its consumer-oriented network. EntryPoint would serve as a consultant to Quincy in the development of the city’s broadband plan.

Cain said the concept of creating a city-owned open access network has been received favorably thus far by both other city councilors and the public. In fact, according to data collected by EntryPoint, about 80 percent of residents who responded to a survey indicated that they would support such a network, with another 16 percent saying that they would “possibly” support it.

“There’s not a week that goes by that I’m not questioned by residents of the city, wondering what the status on the project is,” Cain said.

The city recognizes that a citywide network requires ample preparation. The RFP for network construction includes mention of a feasibility study, which will help Quincy ensure that it has its ducks in a row. The city also issued an RFP for community relations and outreach, as the long-term success of the network will ultimately lie in the hands of consumers.

“A considerable component of this process will be in the community outreach,” Cain said. “We’re not starting a cable company, but we’re starting an entity that needs subscribers, and so there is considerable education, outreach and sales involved in committing subscribers to this new program.”

Cain added that Quincy will issue another RFP at an undetermined date for the open access component of the network.

Although Cain doesn’t know the exact proportion of Quincy residents who have some sort of Internet problem, less than 35 percent of survey respondents rated their current ISP as “good.” Additionally, city staff sometimes face their own connectivity issues.

“We had a finance committee meeting at the city council last night,” Cain said. “We’re still doing virtual meetings … but the whole thing shut down … It was a good opportunity for me to plug a municipally owned line that we can control and be a little more supportive for residents.”

The Future of Quincy’s Network

Jeff Christensen, president and CEO of EntryPoint, sees a lot of potential in what Quincy can do with an open access network, particularly with the kind of software-defined networking and automation that allows residents in Ammon to “switch their ISPs in less than 60 seconds.” Key to Christensen’s perspective is the idea that a network can and should facilitate more than broadband.

From telemedicine to public safety to the timing of city sprinklers, an open access network driven by software can enable a wide range of public services, whether from companies or public entities. A city can be programmed.

“The real upside for Quincy is the scale of it,” Christensen said. “If Ammon was able to achieve the lowest cost with a population of 16,000, we’re really interested to see what Quincy will be able to do with 100,000 people … as people realize this is an open network, we’re interested to see what kind of innovation might happen.”

When it comes to innovations that may be connected to Quincy’s network, Walker said the expansion of Quincy’s smart city capacity is No. 1 on the mayor’s list. For example, Quincy already has a traffic monitoring system, but nothing at the moment is “maximizing the city’s potential when it comes to some of the technologies out there.”

“Our vision is that, over time, people will understand that we will need to do a lot more than the Internet with these networks,” Christensen said. “It can be the foundation for all of your communication and managed by software.”

However, in setting up its network, Quincy must overcome different hurdles. Cain mentioned that from a legal standpoint, the city must set up a municipal light plant in order to manage the operations of the municipal broadband system. To accomplish this, there’s a two-step referendum process that the city needs to go through.

“Like everything in life, there’s tradeoffs,” Christensen said. “The network will largely be aerial, and will probably be somewhat challenging to work with the pole owners [Verizon and electric utility] … In Ammon, the city didn’t have to do that. They buried the network, and they had the easement right of way.”

One potential challenge for any local area is the national debate on broadband infrastructure. Christensen said incumbent providers want all regulation to be built around the Federal Communications Commission’s current standard broadband definition of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps. Even though Christensen isn’t arguing that broadband service itself should be a utility, he’s “interested in seeing cities getting focused on standards built around infrastructure and cities owning the infrastructure for utilities.”

“It’s really analogous to roads,” Christensen explained. “There’s no city that wants a private entity to own the roads ... if you can agree that this is essential infrastructure, then what that implies is that the infrastructure should be a utility infrastructure.”
Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.