Grassroots Group Taking Action In Cambridge

We’ve reported on many communities where citizen grassroots groups mobilized to implement change for better connectivity which often resulted in publicly owned Internet networks. Each community is different and some places require a more active group of advocates to bring change. A group of citizens in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have been working to bring attention to their community’s need for better options for several years. Recently, they formed Upgrade Cambridge, as a way to share information and spread the word about their initiative for a publicly owned fiber optic network.

Organic Organizing

Local Saul Tannebaum has consistently led efforts to bring municipal fiber infrastructure to Cambridge. Tannenbaum is one of eight individuals that are on the Upgrade Cambridge steering committee. He recently told the Cambridge Day:

“This grew completely organically. Folks starting contacting me in January asking what was going on with broadband and how they could help. People pulled in others in their own networks and the effort just took off…The city already knows how the Broadband Task force feels about this. It’s time for them to hear from others.”

In 2014, the City Manager appointed the Cambridge Broadband Task Force, which developed recommendations that they presented in 2016; Tannenbaum was a member of the task force. According to the founders of Upgrade Cambridge, the lack of response from the City Manager is driving the formation of the group. They feel that if community leaders hear from everyday Cambridge citizens and realize the magnitude of the problem, city leaders will feel more compelled to act.

The city also hired a consultant who recommended that Cambridge develop a dark fiber network, but find a private sector ISPs to provide last mile connectivity to businesses and residents via the city owned fiber. Another recommendation from the consultant in 2016 was that the city provide last mile fiber only to the Cambridge Housing Authority (CHA) locations. The task force disagreed with these recommendations.

The Cambrige Broadband Task Force also felt that the consultant recommendation was inadequate and too general. They did not feel confident in the consultant’s estimate of $187 million and suggested the city move forward with a feasibility study. With a study that incorporated community outreach, surveys, and detailed analysis, Cambridge could better determine an accurate cost and weigh it against the benefits.

Why A Muni

Members of the Broadband Task Force considered control over the network, including pricing and services, the most important benefit of a publicly owned asset. Cambridge residents now lack choice in ISPs and the service they get from their provider leaves many residents calling elected officials to complain. In their recommendations, the task force also stressed the fact that a network owned by Cambridge would allow them to “make decisions based on social need rather than business needs.” 

Census figures estimate that as much as 60 percent of lower income households don’t have Internet connections. The consultant hired by Cambridge conducted a telephone survey, which revealed only 5 percent of high income local households don’t connect. If both sources are accurate, the digital divide issue in Cambridge needs to be resolved as the task force recognizes.

Task force members pointed out that Cambridge is unlike the communities the consultant used for comparison. At the time, the community had a higher rate of Internet connections, Cambridge had and still has no electric facility, and the reasons for investing in a network in Cambridge would be primarily to bring better options and services to residents, rather than to attract employers. In their report and recommendations, the task force provided many questions that they wanted answered in a feasibility study. They felt that while the report held useful information, it didn't provide an accurate picture of the community and so it's recommendations lacked credibility.

Read the full report and the recommendations from the Task Force here.

Net Neutrality Decision Raises Interest

When it became clear that Chairman Ajit Pai and the Republican Commissioners on the FCC would repeal federal network neutrality protections in February, Tannenbaum was one of many local municipal network supporters that suddenly became popular. He told the Cambridge Day in February:

In the last few weeks, people in Cambridge not associated with the task force have “come out of the woodwork and reached out and asked what they can do,” he said. “There is the very beginnings of some sort of grassroots group to work with the council so it gets the attention it needs. These are just people who think this should be done – and there are a lot of them. This has broad public support, so far as I can tell.” 

The issue has encourage many communities to consider options beyond relying on national ISPs that no longer have to follow rules against paid prioritization, throttling, and other network neutrality guidelines that protected subscribers. Like many other existing publicly owned networks and projects that are still being developed, Upgrade Cambridge addresses the issue on their FAQ page.

Changes, Requests, Moving Ahead

After unanswered requests for comment on what the city planned to do with the Broadband Task Force’s recommendations and a change in city leadership, Tannebaum and his group decided to form Upgrade Cambridge. The city did not appear ready to take action and has told local press that other priorities are more important than a municipal network. Nevertheless, the folks at Upgrade Cambridge feel that the consultant’s report was inadequate and they recognize that this is a multi-year process.

In order to educate the community and let elected officials know that citizens want to explore more options, they’ve decided to begin with public meetings. The first one is set for March 20 at 7 p.m.

Read the press release on Upgrade Cambridge here.

Check out this video from Cambridge TV: