Quincy, MA Moves Full Speed Ahead On City Owned Open Access Fiber Plan

Quincy MA

Quincy, Massachusetts is moving full speed ahead on a long-percolating plan to bring faster and more reliable broadband to a community long neglected by regional telecom monopolies.

If successful, the resulting open access fiber network should dramatically boost competitive options in the city, driving down costs for what many view as an essential utility.

After five years of debate and planning, Quincy officials say they’re getting closer to launching a city owned open access fiber network that will provide a backbone for city services, as well as a major infusion of long overdue broadband competition citywide.

Quincy Ward 3 Councilor Ian Cain told ISLR that the city is planning to launch trial deployments in Merrymount and Quincy Point during the next few months. The city has long worked with Entrypoint networks as a technical consultant and project financial planner, and city officials are expecting an engineering and feasibility study from Tilson within a matter of weeks.

RFP Coming Soon

“We're intending to bring the request for financing before the council before the end of session, which is at the end of June,” Cain said.

"We'll be putting out an RFP for the open access component of the project soon as well. We hope to fund the project through the city council before the summer, and then ideally we would start construction in the fall."

The initial pilot project will be funded by a general obligation bond. City leaders stated Merrymount and Quincy Point were selected both with an eye on socioeconomic diversity, and because the city was certain they’d see a relatively high adoption rate.

"Quincy Point in particular has a lot of economic and cultural diversity, and I think that's really important to emphasize as we move forward," Ward 2 City Councilor Anthony Andronico said of the city’s effort. "Quincy Point and Merrymount will have an opportunity to see what works with this program, what we can improve upon and help expand it to the whole city.”

Officials have been seriously contemplating getting into the broadband business for years. In early 2018, Cain first floated the idea of a Quincy municipal broadband network to other councilors. By 2020 the city had developed an overarching master plan estimating the full cost of a citywide network at $75 million (a tally Cain concedes is likely dated).

Quincy Market Analysis cost per Mbps

Cain said the city has taken inspiration from Ammon Idaho’s implementation of an open access fiber network, which allows local residents to quickly switch between numerous ISPs with little more than a mouse click. Data routinely suggests such open access models significantly boost competition and lower broadband prices.

Last month, Quincy’s city councilors voted 9-0 to approve the creation of the Municipal Broadband Enterprise Fund, which Cain says will help govern the operations and maintenance of the project.

“We’ll have a municipally owned fiber system that will essentially rent space to ISPs. This account will manage and operate the infrastructure itself,” Cain said, pointing to Quincy’s existing water and sewer water billing departments. “The city won’t be an ISP itself; this account will manage and operate the infrastructure.”

Yet Another Organic Community Response To Monopoly Power And Market Failure

Throughout the process, public animosity at the city’s lack of meaningful competition has driven Quincy’s project forward. Numerous city surveys showcased deep rooted local anger at the high prices and spotty service provided by the city’s entrenched duopoly, which consists of Comcast cable broadband and long-neglected Verizon DSL networks.

“We've been at this for five years and it's still the number one issue that residents, and constituents from all over the city call me to wonder when it’s coming,” Cain said.

Quincy Market Analysis graphic

Surveys conducted by Entrypoint found widespread public support for the city’s proposal, with 80 percent of Quincy residents stating they’d support the creation of such a network, with another 16 percent saying that they’d “possibly” support such an effort. Less than 35 percent of survey respondents currently rated their current ISP as “good,” with the most common complaint being high service prices.

Similar complaints are popping up across the state, which has led to 26 different Bay State cities and towns coming together to form the Massachusetts Broadband Coalition in an effort to explore how they might bring ubiquitous access to more reliable and less costly high-speed Internet service in their respective communities than what is currently offered by the national incumbents.

“When I started in public service, the top issue I heard people asking about was ‘when are we getting FiOS’ or ‘when are we going to get an option for better Internet,’” Cain said. “People were complaining about the cost and then the secondary thing would be about the quality and not having any options.”

As of 2019, ILSR data indicates that roughly 83 million American homes currently live under a broadband monopoly, usually Comcast or Charter (Spectrum). Massachusetts has long been a particular hot spot of the debate over monopoly power, thanks in large part to Verizon’s ongoing tanding refusal to repair or upgrade the company’s dated copper infrastructure.

“In light of the fact that the owner of the infrastructure wouldn't allow for competition to exist on the lines that they own in this city, I started looking into models and I realized that there were other cities that had been looking at a municipal broadband model,” Cain said.

“It was one of these things that you couldn't refute or turn away from because this was a potential solution to a problem that residents really were interested in having solved,” he added.

Quincy Granite Trust building

Like so many communities, Quincy city leaders say that the pandemic—and the subsequent boom in both telecommuting and homeschooling—helped shine a very bright light on the substandard nature of regional monopoly broadband offerings. As well as monopolies’ tendency to neglect upgrades in lower income or otherwise marginalized city neighborhoods.

“What we saw during the pandemic is that the Internet isn't a luxury, it's a utility." Andronico said.

Quincy’s efforts mirror efforts in communities like Fort Pierce, Florida, where officials hope to leverage both the benefits of open access fiber infrastructure to reduce prices through competition, then leverage federal efforts like the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) to drive down costs further.

Such efforts are decidedly local, and are going well beyond the kind of empty lip service common in many state or federal digital divide initiatives.  

“You hear a lot about equity initiatives that provide different benefits for people, but I think this could be a true equalizer for access to information, access to job opportunities, and access to really participate in the digital economy,” Cain said.

Header image courtesy of Flickr user Todd Van Hoosear, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Inline graphics courtesy of Quincy's Broadband Master Plan

Inline image of the Granite Trust building in Quincy courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)