In Cambridge, as in most of the United States, the free market has failed to provide broadband service that meets the needs of a thriving, innovative city. It has, as well, failed to provide service to the economically less fortunate, adding yet another barrier to the climb up the economic ladder. When the market failed to provide ubiquitous electrical and phone service, the government stepped in to address those market failures. It's time for Cambridge to step in and provide municipal broadband, building a state-of-the-art network and using Cambridge's vast wealth to subsidize service for those who can't afford to pay.
Broadband in Cambridge is offered by a single monopoly provider, Comcast. While the City has tried to solicit other broadband providers, none are interested. As Susan Crawford, currently a Visiting Professor in Intellectual Property at the Harvard Law School, documents in her book "Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry & Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age" large telecommunications companies have effectively divided markets in ways that avoid competition. Verizon, which has halted all new investment in its FIOS fiber optic network, and AT&T control the wireless market. In the wired broadband market,
Comcast has announced that it is buying its largest rival, Time-Warner Communications, asserting that this won't harm competition because they serve none of the same customers. Analysts are unanimous in concluding that this merger is about broadband, not cable television. With even less competition, Comcast will have no incentive to upgrade its broadband systems from coaxial cable installed a decade ago to modern, faster fiber optic systems, nor is there any pressure for Comcast to compete on price.
Lost in the image of Cambridge and its vital innovation economy is its economic underclass. While average per capita income in Cambridge grows, its poverty rate remains unchanged. According to the City Council's Neighborhood and Long Term Planning Committee, 30% of Cambridge Housing Authority residents don't have home internet access.
The Cambridge school system, which has limited information on this topic, reports somewhat lower numbers. But it's not hard find examples, such as the Cambridge Rindge and Latin student who is a member of the high school robotics team but who has trouble doing homework because of lack of internet access at home.
Maps of poverty in Cambridge show the tragic irony that Cambridge's poorest areas are adjacent to Kendall Square, an area that is creating vast, internet-fueled wealth. But the opportunities that are presented by Cambridge's thriving innovation economy are largely closed to those who don't have internet access.
In 2005, the Cambridge City Council unanimously adopted an order requesting the City to "devise a plan to close the digital divide by making wireless internet access (wi fi) available throughout the city" calling the internet almost as essential as the telephone. In 2006, the Cable TV, Telecommunications and Public Utilities Committee of the Council was told by City Chief Information Officer Mary Hart of an "exciting" plan to use MIT-developed "mesh" technology in the Newtowne Court Housing Project and that the City had established a "Digital Divide" committee.
That equipment has since been installed, abandoned, replaced, and abandoned again. However bad that sounds, it was even worse. Network routers were placed in peoples' apartments without any explanation of what they were for or why they were placed there. Thus, people returning home found unexplained devices with blinking lights, installations they viewed with suspicion.
Remarkably, despite the lack of attention by the City, the Digital Divide committee has continued to meet and some of its members have been active in Newtowne Court this winter, working to revive, once again, this network installation.
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