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Grassroots for Better Connectivity in Cambridge, Massachusetts - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 304
As Christopher rubbed elbows with other broadband advocates, policy wonks, and industry professionals at the Broadband Communities Summit in Austin, Texas, he had the opportunity to interview several people we've been wanting to bring on the show. Saul Tannenbaum from Cambridge, Massachusetts, was at the event and he talked with Christopher about the citizen's group, Upgrade Cambridge. As one of the city's fiercest municipal network advocates, Saul started the group when city efforts at better connectivity hit a brick wall.
Saul and Christopher discuss the Cambridge community's own unique personality and how it lends itself to both positive forces and ingrained challenges in the effort to bring high-quality connectivity to a diverse city. With strong science, technology, and art sectors, Cambridge realizes that fiber is their best bet and the city has taken past steps to explore the possibilities. Political changes at the municipal level created a new hurdle and when it became obvious that only a strong local grassroots movement could keep the issue moving, he took on the role of organizer.
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Saul Tannenbaum: People view this as one of the things that Cambridge should be doing. In fact, people think it's ridiculous that we're not leading the efforts for municipal broadband.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 304 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. There's something afoot in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it's called Upgrade Cambridge. The community is the home of Harvard University, MIT, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a long list of other entities focused on higher ed, technology, and the arts, but while people in the community appreciate all that Cambridge has to offer, they also recognize that what Cambridge needs is better connectivity. Our guest this week is Saul Tannenbaum. He's one of the people instrumental in the creation and development of Upgrade Cambridge. It's the citizens group that aims to find a way to get Cambridge what it needs: better Internet access. He and Christopher met up at the broadband community summit in Austin, Texas, where both have been sharing their knowledge and experiences to help others improve local connectivity. Saul talks about the steps the city has taken before investigation into a municipal fiber optic network stalled. He and Christopher also touch on local politics, the challenges on how to address the needs of a diverse population and what it's like to be an organizer trying to reach people and overcome misinformation. Be sure to check out UpgradeCambridge.org for more. We've also written about Saul and the city on MuniNetworks.org. Now, here's Christopher with Saul Tannenbaum from Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell, coming to you live. I always question that as I say it because I'm recording it and everyone who records things is live, but the most important part here is that I'm with Saul Tannenbaum, the cofounder of Upgrade Cambridge. Welcome to the show.
Saul Tannenbaum: Thank you Chris. It's a pleasure to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: So we are at the Broadband Communities Summit in Austin, Texas, which is where I think we met for the first time several years ago. You've been coming for many years. Upgrade Cambridge, Massachusetts. First question, did you get the name from Upgrade Seattle?
Saul Tannenbaum: Absolutely. We spent time trying to find a better name and couldn't. So we chose that in, we'll rename ourselves, if we've come up with something better.
Christopher Mitchell: Cambridge, Massachusetts, maybe people in Cal Tech would argue with this but possibly the most educated square miles of the United States.
Saul Tannenbaum: Something like that. I mean it, you know, we have Kendall Square, which counts itself as the most innovative, you know, square mile on the planet. It's home to Harvard and MIT. You know, more and more, it seems like every global pharmaceutical brand wants its global headquarters, its global research lab, or both within walking distance of MIT so we've had an incredible commercial economic boom around us. And -- I mean, it's also true in the Internet space. Facebook, Google, Akamai, Microsoft, and companies you've never heard of all want to be walking distance to MIT. And we have a hugely successful incubator in the Cambridge Innovation Center, which houses, you know, an incredible amount of venture capital and an incredible number of startups. It's a sort of thriving economic environment focused on the knowledge industries.
Christopher Mitchell: And yet you have kind of the same broadband access that any US city has, which is to say Comcast cable, Verizon broadband over a copper DSL mostly. You didn't get FIOS I don't think. So you have all this incredible capacity of humans and yet the same network you can find in almost any city in the United States.
Saul Tannenbaum: That's correct. I mean, it's largely a Comcast monopoly. There are still, you know, Verizon DSL users for people, mostly people who either simply don't want to be Comcast customers or people we've found this out just recently, um, who believed the marketing that Verizon DSL is really broadband and thought their terrible performance they're getting is what you should expect from broadband. Because we have almost fountains of money in certain places, some companies buy their way around their problems. For example, Google reimburses some of it staff for Comcast Business Service at home so that they can get, you know, trucks to roll if there's a problem. And these are folks who are on-call as Google site reliability engineers and so Google just pays that money. So some parts of Cambridge that can afford it just buy their way out of the problem.
Christopher Mitchell: So Upgrade Cambridge is a citizen organization. You help to create it. You're a cofounder of it. What has the strategy been on this? I presume that like in Seattle, you see an opportunity for the city to take action, but the city is not inherently motivated to do so.
Saul Tannenbaum: Right?. And we're actually just a couple of months old. I mean if you had contacted me last fall, you would have heard me complain about the fact that I would have to become a grassroots organizer, which is, you know, I'm enough to know my strengths and weaknesses and that was not something I was really inclined to do, but then have a funny thing started happening in December and January. Folks started reaching out to me saying, what can I do to help? So a sort of core initial group, Adrian Musgrave, who is a city council candidate, Roy Russell, who is, was the technology half of Zipcar and Matt Goldstein, who's a computer science book publisher, all sort of reached out and I met with them. Then we met together and it was clear that we had to, you know, come together to make something happen.
Christopher Mitchell: And when I was out there I believe Anne Schwieger, at that time, before she was working for the city of Boston, was involved. I don't know that, I don't know how viaable she still is [to put effort into Upgrade Cambridge], but I know she was also one of the people that was trying to get the city to move forward.
Saul Tannenbaum: Four years ago -- it's been that long -- the city manager put together a broadband task force, which was my idea and my timing was impeccable. It was around the time of losing net neutrality to the Verizon court decision and the Comcast NBC merger and the city manager at the time said, we have to do something about this and this is, you know, this is a Cambridge thing to pull members of the community in. And so I was on the task force. Anne Schwieger, was on the task force along with a number of others and it was, you know, there are people on the task force who, if they weren't volunteering their time could easily have been the consultants to the taskforce.
Saul Tannenbaum: We met for years and issued a report urging the city to take the next steps, you know, for municipal broadband. And there were sort of three legs to that. One was outreach to marginalized communities, to understand the digital divide and craft a solution to fix it. -- Do a detailed financial analysis of a municipal broadband build to understand what the actual costs, you know, would be and make revenue projections. And, third, do the communitywide community outreach, which was necessary to both get a good consensus decision on whether we should go ahead with it and also serves as marketing for the, you know, financial analysis, so you can actually get a reasonable chance at a good take rate. I mean, those recommendations had been sitting with a city manager for about 18 months now without any visible movement.
Christopher Mitchell: And was there a change over in the city manager?
Saul Tannenbaum: Yes. Cambridge had a few years ago, the longest serving city manager in the deputy year term and then decided it was time to enjoy life. The city went through a hiring process. And it turns out to be very difficult to recruit outside candidates for city manager because if you're at that level, you have a good benefits package and it's not portable. So there are real structural problems of hiring a senior experienced city manager type from somewhere else. So we ended up with an internal candidate who had been our director of finance. That's where we are today with the recommendation still sitting on his desk.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Well, the reason I ask is it's interesting that you have one city manager that puts the task force together, presumably somewhat enthusiastic about the idea. Now it sounds like you have a city manager who is not enthusiastic and so if you had that old city manager, maybe you don't need to form Upgrade Cambridge. Maybe the process works through itself.
Saul Tannenbaum: Right. And these, these were public meetings where a lot of this took place. So I don't, I can say that city staff working hard to implement our recommendations. In fact, they scheduled multiple extra meetings of the task force, so we would be ready for the summer city council meeting for an appropriation for the second, the second phase, and then pulled that back mostly because it was impossible to get ready. But city staff we're working on going forward. And then just -- activity just stopped.
Christopher Mitchell: Um hum. This -- in some ways -- and this is one of the reasons I wanted to point out the brain power that you have amassed there -- because we've seen a similar dynamic in some ways in Palo Alto where they have tremendous capacity to move forward and one of the consultants that they'd hired years ago, I think, had convinced a number of people and there's still other people that have significant questions that are reasonable but nonetheless seem a little out of character with the community because if there is a place on this planet in which there are people that understand the difference between a Comcast, you know, gigabit down and 35 Mbps up at an extremely high price and a high quality symmetrical gig, it's in these sorts of places. Right? And if there's a demand in Chattanooga and many other places for gigabit service, there's gotta be a demand in Cambridge, in Palo Alto, in these places. So, you know, I would think it'd be easier to sell in a place like Cambridge then in, you know, Westfield, Massachusetts.
Saul Tannenbaum: What's really interesting to me and in that sense is that after that first sort of core organizing group, we very quickly, you know, sort of grew in a number of dimensions on one hand, you know, call it the social justice community of Cambridge because there appears to be a real digital divide in Cambridge reflected in the, you know, in the census data saying that basically every affluent family has broadband in the home, but only 50 percent of low income families do. The school system's experience contradicts that. And one of the, you know, there's a key question of what's actually on the ground reality and nobody really knows. But that was one group that joined in quickly. The other group is sort of a, a bunch of folks who work for the Internet infrastructure companies who understand exactly this -- one of our most dedicated, you know, volunteers at this point is, Christopher Schmitt, you know, who works for one of these large companies. Um, and has become a great fan of your podcast. You know, he's somebody who didn't even know what municipal broadband was last fall, until the council candidate asked him about it and it's like, oh, that sounds like something I would support and he's voraciously become an expert. And you know, there are other people like that who just understand how this should work, you know, in the, you know, sort of greater sense.
Christopher Mitchell: Um hum. You mentioned you don't have a background of doing grassroots organizing. Cambridge is a large, complicated place in which people live complicated lives, very active lives, I'm guessing. How do you break through to get their attention to tell them about this possibility, and that sort of thing?
Saul Tannenbaum: Ask me that question again once we're sure we've figured it out, I mean the, the joke in Cambridge is if you want to get people's attention, put something in the New York Times. Because that, you know, that's how you get them. You've got communities that are focused more inward than outward, Harvard, MIT, etc. We are aiming to have a presence, call it sympathetic meetings, where we can, you know, collect names, etc., putting them on our mailing list. Our Senator Ed Markey just held a net neutrality event in Cambridge at MIT with a Susan Crawford and Tom Wheeler. We had folks collecting names there.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. That's an opportunity that not everyone has.
Saul Tannenbaum: Right, exactly, exactly. And we're planning our own events. The author of the recent ACLU report on, you know, community networks, which I know you were a reviewer of-- Yeah. Jay -- is coming to town in the middle of May -- May 16th -- and we're going to have an event, cosponsored with the ACLU of Massachusetts about net neutrality, privacy and community networks. So we're going to ride on the ACLU of Massachusetts' publicity for that, etc. And we have another event which was almost confirmed, of a Harvard student who's done a documentary on the digital divides.
Christopher Mitchell: Maria. There's a website that you can view her films at DividingLines.org.
Saul Tannenbaum: A number of us saw the trailer for that when she gave a talk at Harvard six weeks ago and we're going to bring her to a lot of --
Christopher Mitchell: Let me just jump in to remind you that you could also do a screening of Do Not Pass Go, which we've been promoting -- the film about municipal networks out of North Carolina.
Saul Tannenbaum: We have been talking about movie night, so that, that's one of those things. I mean, that's, you know, as much of a strategy as we have. Amongst Cambridge residents, it's hard to find opposition. There is some. One of my fellow task force members is -- he doesn't describe himself that way. He wants to be the person of reason raising questions, but his body of work over the years is very libertarian and he's just opposed. And there are other people like that. There are other people who question, think in advance, anything like this as a boondoggle. But those are few and far between in Cambridge, most -- mostly everybody's in support. Three years ago I asked city council candidates whether they were supportive of spending the city's money and everyone who was elected was in support. I mean, so there's that sort of general level of support. That's not, it's not hard to check that on a candidate questionnaire.
Saul Tannenbaum: And as this gets closer to reality, the questions get harder. We have a nine member council. I would bet that seven of them are, I would call at least soft supporters and there are a few others who are serious supporters. One newly-elected city councilor, Quinton Zondervan, has, has taken this issue under his wing. His first approach to it is through the digital equity issues because that was his personal path, being from an immigrant family, you know, getting him to MIT. So he wants everyone else to have the opportunities he did. And he's working with the city staff right now to fashion something. If we don't end up with municipal broadband, but we've actually fixed the digital equity issues in this city, that's an accomplishment.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things I read into a little bit into your comment earlier is that there seems to be a debate as to exactly how bad the divide is and that you may not trust the data you have on it.
Saul Tannenbaum: The only way to know is to talk to people.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Well, actually, that's what I wanted to suggest. I was stunned when learning about the E2D which is short for Eliminate the Digital Divide group, which is out of Charlotte and started just north of Charlotte in the Davidson area where they did eliminate the digital divide. And one of the ways that they did it was they talked to the teachers. It's a smaller community, but all the teachers know how many kids in their class have broadband at home and who doesn't. It's very apparent to them. So, that's just one thing I wanted to throw out there for folks to be aware of.
Saul Tannenbaum: Cambridge used to be on the cutting edge of these issues. A dozen or so years ago, it partnered with MIT to put what was then experimental technology, mesh Wi-Fi in a city housing project. It very quickly learned that this was not a technology problem. It was more complicated. It pulled its human services people in. And it developed, you know, sort of three legs of digital equity, the technology, literacy, and equipment. And so it had all these lessons learned. And it understood that you need to actually talk to people [to] understand their problems. You couldn't just drop Wi-Fi access points into people's homes without any notice and actually achieve something. But all that seems to have been lost. And the city, a couple of years ago, just pulled that equipment out and replaced it with a, you know, a single access point outdoors and one in a common room and then held a big party to celebrate. Which I thought was, well, I won't say what I thought, but you can
Christopher Mitchell: Sure. A little less than is needed.
Saul Tannenbaum: Right. So, I mean, we used to be there. Now the census data say one thing. The school department has been giving out Chromebooks. Cambridge school department. So they actually gave a lot of thought to digital equity issues. They have hot spots that they would give to kids who needed it. They said nobody's taken them. They have surveys that show that there isn't much of a problem, but they're self reported. So we don't-- Who are you going to trust? -- the census data or the school department? And that's -- you know, both could be wrong. And one of the things I'm going to be watching for as the digital equity stuff moves forward is whether people are actually going to get to the ground truth. Because we also heard stories about students who are ashamed to admit they don't have broadband at home. If they're faking it for their teachers, I don't know. I mean this is a core economic equity issue for Cambridge and we've developed this knowledge-based economy and we have as a city goal making sure all residents have access to it. And you obviously need access to the Internet, you know, do that these days. You need it. There's a big push this year for STEAM education, STEM with the arts added.
Christopher Mitchell: Science, technology, engineering, math, and then the arts, is the --.
Saul Tannenbaum: Right.
Christopher Mitchell: --is the, "A" that sometimes inserted and appropriately so.
Saul Tannenbaum: Right. And you know, kid doesn't have access to the Internet at home, they're just simply not going to do as well. This is something to get to the bottom of. I mean, we, we at Upgrade Cambridge, a couple of us met with the school IT people who are as puzzled by this as we are. I mean they have their actual experience, you know, we have the census data and they just don't match. So we should run it to ground. Cambridge takes credit for the invention of the Internet, you know, you can argue that one, but this is something we should really fix. And it's really something we were on the path to fixing, you know, a dozen years ago. And then it just stopped.
Christopher Mitchell: So if you have your crystal ball is this-- is it something you're -- a fight you're engaging in and you're going to do the best you can. And or is it something that you, you're about to win? Do you have a sense?
Saul Tannenbaum: Oh, I don't think we're about to do anything. This is going to be a process. I mean the city manager appears to be implacably opposed. The city council is in favor and um, we haven't had a long time. So it's not clear how that would go.
Christopher Mitchell: It seems like a classic political problem that, uh, is well known among people who study this sort of thing that you have a lot of people that could gain a little bit from a better network because this is an area in which people largely, um, certainly there's a gap, but there's most people can afford to pay the Comcast prices to get the better services even though it's not as good as a, as a municipal network would be in pricing, customer service or other technical characteristics of the network.
Saul Tannenbaum: That's where the sort of national movements around net neutrality and Internet privacy are doing us a great favor because suddenly the stakes seem higher. I mean, it's not, not--
Christopher Mitchell: Not just seem higher. They certainly are higher.
Saul Tannenbaum: Well, yeah, Fair. It goes beyond the simple, you know, you can get higher symmetric speeds at lower cost, municipal broadband. But, you know, it'll be neutral and it won't monetize your internet usage history -- are big deals. So I think that's the sort of thing that, as you say, raises the literal stakes. So that, I mean that changes things. If you go back to the 1980s, Cambridge actually tried to have a publicly owned cable system. It came to a referendum. The advocates for a public system, believed they won. The cable system, the cable system at the time forced a recount. And then it was lost by, you know, a couple of dozen of votes.
People remember that and are still angry about it. But it's also this sort of issue is sort of in Cambridge's blood. I mean, nobody really says this any more because of a whole bunch of reasons, but we're called the People's Republic of Cambridge for a reason. Um, you know, using the city to support social justice. And then, I mean in terms of social justice, both the digital equity issue, but the net neutrality issue and the privacy issue is something that, you know, Cambridge routinely does. There are more gains than just that small incremental, better network. People view this as one of the things that Cambridge should be doing. In fact, people think it's ridiculous that we're not leading the efforts for municipal broadband. I mean that, that's the sort of thing you hear all the time. You know, why haven't we done this already? How this plays out. I mean, we don't know yet. I mean it's, we're sort of, you know, this is kind of iterative. We're pushing, we're going to see what the city council does have. How the new manager reacts, and we'll, you know, we'll go from there. I mean the first test will be this effort for digital equity, whether it's actually serious, whether the city is prepared to put in the time and effort to discover what the problem is and fix it, or whether it just wants to, you know, check off a box.
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you so much for coming on Saul. It's been a pleasure getting to know you over the years down here and on Twitter.
Saul Tannenbaum: The pleasure is likewise.
Christopher Mitchell: And I'm thrilled that people like you are stepping up and leading their communities forward when the city council is not just doing it naturally on its own.
Saul Tannenbaum: And the problem is it's largely people like me and who look like me. And one of our efforts is to try and reach out to, you know, not the, you know, white technical people, and have their help as well.
Christopher Mitchell: The lesson that you note about you know, you don't just drop the devices on low income people and, and make a difference. This is, has structural challenges. There's race issues, there's a lot of issues that are tied up in it. And having people involved in this decision-making process is essential. It's not just enough to figure out how we best think we should solve other people's problems.
Saul Tannenbaum: Yes indeed. And Cambridge has a lot of expertise in doing that. I mean it's got, you know, social service programs that are the envy of most other cities in America and we should be using that expertise, you know, to fix this problem as well.
Christopher Mitchell: So is there anything you want to let folks in Cambridge know?.
Saul Tannenbaum: If you have Cambridge listeners who haven't found us yet, UpgradeCambridge.org. Sign up. Come join us and help us work this issue.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you for being the first of several interviews that will come out of the broadband community summit down here in Austin.
Saul Tannenbaum: You're welcome. It was a pleasure to do it.
Lisa Gonzalez: We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/Broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow Muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts: Building Local Power, the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research, subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. Thank you to Arnie Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 304 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.