The financial feasibility study for the city-owned Internet continues, with the network looking more realistic and a new city manager in place.The dynamic at the officials’ roundtable Monday was in some ways a failure from years past: City Manager Yi-An Huang was more visible. Municipalities are more enthusiastic about broadband than some city councillors.
“It’s no secret that the previous administration had serious concerns about the impact of the municipal broadband system,” Huang said Monday, and it took significant pressure from councilors to launch the review. “It’s a very exciting opportunity.”
According to statements at the roundtable, the network will take more than four years to build, although certain neighborhoods may be prioritized. Vice Mayor Alanna Mallon said she was “excited but sad” to hear the estimates after five years of staff resistance, and council member Patty Nolan said it was “a little frustrating.” Because if we had done it earlier … that four-year timeline, we would have gotten through it.”
However, the need to start making decisions does not arrive until early 2023. The original timeline for the final report was this fall, but Huang told councilors about the deadline, “we’re a little behind. [but] is working hard to do it as soon as possible.”
Joanne Hovis, president of CTC Technology & Energy, a consultant brought in by the city for the feasibility study, said detailed cost estimates require more effort “due to significant uncertainty in the current market for labor and materials.” “The level of demand is unprecedented in the 25 years of commercial Internet deployment of fiber to the home.” More work is needed to make sure the numbers are as robust and reliable as possible, he said.
I have been waiting since 2016
Residents have been waiting since a city-run task force concluded its work in September 2016 with a proposal to investigate; councilor Quinton Zondervan said he remembers talking to City Manager Robert W. Healy about municipal broadband about a decade ago.
A survey by CTC this summer found that 66 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the city should make it easier to build fiber broadband even if it required tax subsidies, which Hovis called “exceptionally high” compared to similar markets. Cambridge has a higher-than-average number of people who work from home, officials noted during a Monday roundtable discussion.
The poll’s numbers were similar when comparing respondents who own and rent their homes — 61 percent to 68 percent — but fell when looking at residents who already have a second option for Internet, suggesting that municipal broadband’s popularity owes much to their dislike of Comcast. It operates as Xfinity. Eighty-seven percent of respondents simply wanted citywide competition for Internet business. (Starry, one of the rare other players for low-income residents in Cambridge Housing Authority homes, faces financial problems.) People would be most excited about subscriptions between $30 and $70 a month, he said.
“Cambridge, despite being a center of technological innovation, has a near-monopoly for Comcast, which provides average quality Internet service to which I am a subscriber,” Huang said.
Looking at the data provided by CTC, Nolan was just disappointed by Comcast. “I have to go look at our bill because I think we’re overpaying,” Nolan said. “We’re not getting the advertising speed that Comcast says it is [provide]. We have checked them many times.”
Some of the fiber used by Comcast was deployed in the 1980s, but its network is still “very capable,” Hovis said. The company and its peers are also envisioning a series of nationwide upgrades that will “almost challenge the cable industry” against what the city can provide technologically.
Consumer advocates say that would likely lead to higher prices for consumers; Having a competitor in the city may be the only way to keep prices down, Huang and Hovis said, and Comcast’s competitors have declined to bid for business in Cambridge for the past three decades.
Partnership or utility
The CTC filing has led Cambridge to explore partnerships with private companies — even Comcast — because some of the city’s most successful fully independent broadband operations own their own municipal electric utilities. It’s easier to build a fiber network when a city has its own utility poles, which is not the case in Cambridge, which consultants say would need a network of 130.3 route miles of fiber, 62.1 percent of which is above ground. To meet subscribers with home or business installation, maintenance and technology challenges, Cambridge “will have to develop or acquire more of these capabilities,” Hovis said. “Cities that were already public power cities certainly had an advantage in terms of infrastructural capacity, capacity, financing capacity, and a number of other things in being able to build and manage these networks… existing [municipal] the utility is a game changer; developing a new one, not necessarily.”
The city could take a hybrid step to create a “municipal light plant,” even if the city doesn’t own existing utility poles. Nolan said the council could hold the first vote “very soon” to allow city staff to create one if the broadband study suggests it.
Municipal light plants are being studied by the Law Department, city attorney Nancy Glowa said, and Huang didn’t exactly say no to the idea: “My only concern is that building a municipal light plant could still be a little easier. the terms of the board and staff time,” Huang said. “It would be prudent to wait for the likely report.”
While Zondervan has called for the city to dismantle its Water Department, he wondered Monday whether having a water utility could help make up for the lack of an energy department, such as ensuring billing infrastructure.
“The sooner we start, the better,” Zondervan said.
Take a step back
There were councilors who expressed more caution.
“You’re probably close to a mandate” for city-owned broadband, Councilor Marc McGovern said in light of survey responses — but after a few more years of roadwork to install fiber, people may feel differently and questions remain about operating costs. At-large member E. Denise Simmons asked for guarantees on paying low-income residents’ bills and how municipal broadband would affect seniors who want Comcast cable only for TV. Council’s youngest member, Burhan Azeem, wasn’t immediately sold on Hovis’ promise of “symmetrical” upload and download speeds the city can offer, but Comcast doesn’t. “I download a lot of Netflix movies; I don’t do a lot of Netflix movies,” says Azeem, although he is excited by the idea of launching virtual reality and even robotic surgery. “Cambridge really deserves high-speed internet.”
Councilman Paul Toner, who wanted the city manager’s 2023 recommendation with frequently asked questions and pros and cons, seemed most skeptical. “I just want to take a step back. The whole conversation was, ‘Give us the bill because we’re going to do it,’ and we still have a lot of issues to fight,” Toner said.
While no one from staff or CTC was ready Monday to estimate the cost of construction, operations and closures that will pay for it, Toner said he thought the May update suggested a figure of about $150 million.
Former City Manager Louis DePasquale said in May 2020 that he was “scared of a million-dollar investment. [in a study] leads to a billion-dollar investment.” This led Toner to hear a relative bargain, half the cost of the latest school construction in town.
The CTC contract was for $465,000.