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Worcester, Mass., Schools Seek Exploration of Muni Broadband

After the district scrambled this summer to provide Internet to families to support its remote learning model, a school panel on Thursday voted to ask city leaders to look into bringing municipal broadband to Worcester.

No student should be robbed of an education that defines their economic mobility. [T&G Staff FIle Photo/Rick Cinclair]
(TNS) — After the district had to scramble this summer to provide internet to families to support its remote learning model, a school panel on Thursday voted to ask city leaders to look into bringing municipal broadband to Worcester, Mass.

The Standing Committee on School and Student Performance, which met specifically to take up the internet issue, specifically requested the City Council take "concrete steps" to explore the idea, as well as come up with a detailed cost analysis.

The committee also voted to tell the city's legislative delegation about the need for state and federal grant money for cities like Worcester that are either investigating or in the process of implementing municipal broadband.

Broadband internet in Worcester is currently offered by just Charter Communications, which has created inequitable access to fast internet in the city, according to a report put out by the Worcester Regional Research Bureau in July. That study showed, for instance, that nearly one-third of Worcester households did not have broadband, and 18 percent had no internet at all.

The report concluded Worcester should look into providing its own broadband network, despite the potentially high cost of doing so.

The failures of the current model became especially apparent during the pandemic, when the schools had to quickly shift to remote learning after schools were forced to close, leaving many families unable to connect to online lessons and resources. Over the summer, the district was able to reach an agreement with Verizon to buy thousands of wireless hotspots for families that had no internet at home, but "piecemeal efforts" will not solve the larger problem of how Worcester can ensure equitable, reliable broadband to all residents in the future, said standing committee chair Tracy O'Connell Novick.

"It's important for us, as a body charged with things like vision, to take the extra step" of pursuing more comprehensive solutions like municipal broadband, said Novick, who made both motions voted on by the standing committee Thursday.

"I do think we as a city have to do something about this," said fellow member Laura Clancey. "We used to look at internet as a luxury. That's gone - it's a quality of life issue now."

While the committee ultimately voted unanimously in favor of the measures, however, member Dianna Biancheria expressed reservations at pushing the City Council to take on the project, saying she needed more evidence municipal broadband is the answer.

"My concern is are we making a cost we don't necessarily have to, when we may not be a fit" for municipal broadband, she said. "It's one report (the Research Bureau report) we're looking at here where we're making this determination."

Biancheria eventually voted in favor of the motions, however, after amending the request to the City Council to also include analyses of how municipal broadband has worked for a few other, comparable communities.

The potential good news, said Research Bureau executive director Paul Matthews, who along with research associate Tom Quinn presented their report's findings at Thursday's meeting, is that while the pandemic has highlighted the current shortcomings of the city's broadband access, it's also brought needed attention to the problem.

"One of the silver linings could be additional state and federal funding that will assist communities like Worcester grapple with this issue," he said.

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