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"The New Digital Divide" by Free Press Pics is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
"The New Digital Divide" by Free Press Pics is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Councilors consider how to improve internet access for all in Somerville

(Somerville Wire) – Somerville’s leaders would like to ensure high-quality internet access for everyone in the city, but they’re unsure of how to get there.

The City Council Public Utilities and Public Works Committee considered the question on Monday, Dec. 5, with the help of Carolyn Kirk, executive director of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MassTech), a quasi-public economic development agency.

Invited by Committee Chair Jesse Clingan, the Ward 4 councilor, Kirk was previously deputy secretary for Housing and Economic Development in the Baker administration, and has extensive experience in the tech sector as well as four terms as elected mayor of Gloucester.

Kirk also oversees the Mass Broadband Institute, created by the Commonwealth in 2008 as a division of MassTech. MBI has focused primarily on bringing broadband to towns in Western and Central Mass. that had little or no coverage. Some of those towns partnered with private broadband providers, and others built municipally owned and operated networks.

Comparing her agency’s experience of providing “last mile” broadband service in underserved parts of Massachusetts, Kirk said what Somerville needs is “the last inch.”

Citing state and federal data, she said, “Somerville is like 99.9% served. … You have five or six providers who have customers in Somerville — which just gives you an idea of the competitive landscape.”

Although the infrastructure is available to them, about 13 percent of the households in Somerville don’t have internet, according to a recent study. These residents may not have the equipment, they may be unable to afford the service, or they may not have digital literacy, Kirk said.

“We’re seeing a lot in public housing projects where they don’t have internet in every single unit,” she said, “so how do we have really high-quality, high-speed Wi-Fi for the residents of those units? And also, how do we get them the devices that they might need, and also if they’re eligible for the federal subsidy subscription, and then digital literacy, of course.”

The City’s 2019 Internet Access Task Force report provides a range of policy options to expand internet access for low-income residents and establish a citywide municipal broadband system. The report explores a variety of ownership and management options, ranging from completely owned and controlled by the City, to various types of public-private partnerships.

The question, of course, is how to pay for it.

Kirk listed several sources of federal funding coming to Massachusetts for broadband infrastructure. “The restrictions though are pretty significant,” she warned. The federal funding is usually earmarked for areas that currently have deficiencies in service quality and coverage. “A lot of the dollars are going towards the digital divide,” trying to address the gap in internet access based on economic, educational, and social inequalities, she said.

Despite having numerous providers, the City could get funding if the quality of the service offered is bad. Quality refers to the upload and download speeds, not customer service, Kirk remarked.

Another way to fund municipal broadband is to create a partnership with a private company. That can mean municipally-owned but privately-operated networks, privately-owned but heavily regulated by the city, or a joint ownership agreement. Kirk said it’s hard to determine how much it would cost to set up municipal broadband in any particular municipality, and how much revenue it would bring in.

“The advice I always give is to do an RFP [request for proposals], put it out on the street to see if there are any potential bidders,” she said. If a potential provider responds to an RFP, “they’ll do the market research for you and they’ll tell you whether or not this is financially viable.”

The two basic infrastructure options are to put fiber optic lines onto existing telephone poles, or bury them in underground conduits.

The poles are owned and controlled jointly by the electric, cable, and telephone companies, and a City-run system would have to pay an annual license fee to use the poles. Underground conduits require digging up the city streets, and “that also has its own challenges,” Kirk said.

Clingan suggested that there might be opportunities to get funding for several affordable housing projects that are “in the works,” such as the expansion and renovation of the Clarendon Hill property on North Street, which is a public-private partnership. He said he sees the most likely route being to “talk to the developers” of large multi-family properties to see if they would partner with the city or a private internet provider.

Cambridge has been considering municipal broadband for several years, and hired a consulting firm last year to do a feasibility study for a potential city-owned network. The Cambridge City Council met to review preliminary data last week, according to the Cambridge Day. 

Councilor-at-Large Charlotte Kelly said she heard that Cambridge is studying municipal broadband, and asked whether Kirk knew of any communities that had pursued a regional approach with its neighbors.

Kirk said the collaborations she knows have mostly been large partnerships with multiple towns, and they’ve been tricky to implement.

“If you have a collaboration with Cambridge or another neighboring [town], and you’re used to that kind of sharing, then you could probably get it done. I haven’t seen it done beyond a onesie or a twosie,” she said.

Hannah Carrillo, the mayor’s legislative liaison, said the City recently created a Digital Bridge Initiative to address inequities in internet access, and staff will be looking at the potential of municipal broadband as part of the larger problem of the digital divide. The City also applied for a federally funded planning grant to help research its options.

In addition to some written comments from residents, Clingan invited local activist Greg Hill to speak. Hill is a member of a citizens group in favor of municipal broadband, which came together through a forum at the Somerville Media Center last September, which was organized by Somerville Stands Together. The Citizens Broadband Committee includes organizations such as the Community Action Agency of Somerville, the Racial Justice Collaborative, the Cambridge-Somerville chapter of the Mass. Senior Action Council, and the Somerville Media Center, he said.

Hill quoted Roy Russell, a spokesperson for Upgrade Cambridge, a grassroots group that has led “the citizen groundswell for municipal broadband in Cambridge and helped to bring it to where it is now,” Hill said. Russell said that “it’s often an act of political will that will bring municipal broadband and its benefits to a municipality,” said Hill.

“And we hope that there will be public hearings about the Task Force reports’ recommendations because some of them, to our mind, are not necessarily accurate, and there definitely needs to be public input,” he said.

“We have the political will,” said Clingan. “If we can actually afford the price tag or not, that’s the issue.”

Kelly said she hears about this issue regularly from constituents from all over the city, “regardless of age or income.”

Residents are in “the stranglehold of these companies that should really be public utilities, that are in many ways regulated like public utilities, but that are kept in the hands of private entities who can jack up their costs whenever they want. And so, this to me is a real struggle, a real question of providing public goods and public services to our residents, and meeting people where they’re at, and forging a bold path where we actually start to provide these services as if they are these public utilities that we require to live our lives on a regular basis,” she said.

Ward 5 Councilor Beatriz Gomez Mouakad expressed concern that the City has “a dense infrastructure,” with a “wire-management issue” on the utility poles.

“I think we need to start thinking about how many wires go up on our poles,” she said. “And I think you tie that to future resiliency,” referring to storms that could knock down poles. “When you’re in a dense situation, you have to think really carefully about your infrastructure and its resiliency.”

Clingan said the options are clear but the question is “how the pieces come together, who does the actual building, and who maintains it. All of these pieces, it’s pretty daunting, and really a big undertaking, in my mind.”

Photo credit: “The New Digital Divide” by Free Press Pics is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Linda Pinkow is a reporter for the Somerville Wire. She is also a development consultant for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism

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