March 2023

Thursday, March 16, 2023 - 7:00pm to 9:00pm

PSNA meeting minutes March 16, 2023

Municipal broadband

The roundtable meeting of the City Council to review the findings of the feasibility study about building a municipal broadband system was held on Monday, March 13. To prepare ourselves for the wider discussion of the proposal we expect to follow, we invited three folks who could provide some history, explain the technical issues well, and assist in identifying the topics that need to be clarified and better understood.

  • Robert Winters, long-time observer of Cambridge civic affairs who would also like to reduce his monthly cable bill and can ask good questions
  • Paul Toner, City Councillor who will be voting on this and wants to both understand it better and to hear what the average resident thinks about it
  • John Klensin, a godfather of the internet, among other things, and local resident who can get deeply into the weeds on the technical stuff

Toward the end of the meeting, John Hawkinson, who can follow Mr. Klensin into the weeds and has complementary knowledge of the current state of some of these weeds in the City joined the discussion and offered a lot of very helpful information and clarification.

What follows is part summary, part transcript of an hour-long meeting of people who were in a room at Lesley and on a Zoom call. Remarks from our four knowledgeable speakers are flagged by name; remarks from those in attendance are marked as PSNA.

Many questions were raised throughout this discussion, and they are collected at the end.

We made every effort to faithfully represent what was said. We are fully prepared to learn that we missed some things or that the editing of points to make this beast easier to read may have changed the emphasis slightly in some places. We apologize in advance for any of that. Nonetheless, we found the information valuable and we hope that others across the City can use it to inform the discussions that are needed to make the decision about this proposal.

First, some context: How did Cambridge become hostage to Comcast?

There have been rumors for years that some backroom deal was responsible for the lack of competition in the City. However, there is some alignment between City contract requirements and the contours of some rumors. That said, none of what follows necessarily rules out a deal of some sort at some point.

First, some facts. Winters observed that Comcast does not actually have an actual monopoly; in practice, however they do. A contractual requirement the City has for cable providers is that they must be able to provide service to all addresses, not just a subset of addresses that a provider might prefer to serve. Thus, if say RCN wanted to go to the expense of building its own infrastructure, it could negotiate a contract with the City.

The Comcast network is built on coaxial cable, which is great for the services it was designed to deliver originally, but not as great for high-volume/high-speed data transfer that some internet users now require. Verizon FIOS is actually in Cambridge in some of the new buildings to which it is required to provide landline service. In those buildings, they lay fiber, and when the fiber is there, they can provide FIOS, too.

Another factor in all this is that cable and fiber are regulated differently. Federal regulations allow municipalities to negotiate contracts for cable services; there’s no such requirement for fiber. Thus Comcast (or RCN) has to do things that Verizon does not (e.g., pay fees to the city, serve all addresses).

Now, some rumors. One is that Verizon did want to build out FIOS in Cambridge, but was dissuaded from doing so in a back-room deal. However, such details that have surfaced bear a striking resemblance to the City’s cable contract requirements.

Another variation on this is that the City would not be allow Verizon to serve (and bill) customers as they built their network; they would be required to wait until the entire system was in place before they could begin to earn back the costs.

Also, some interests in the City (CCTV being one) had been getting lots of money from Comcast and were concerned that this money would go away if there were competition; it’s rumored that Verizon was told it had to match this funding if the City were to let it in.

Thus, these requirements may have created a nonviable business model that caused some folks, and possibly Verizon itself, to believe it was being pushed out. Verizon is building out FIOS in Boston, right now.

In the discussion, the point was made that this all-or-nothing service requirement should be viewed as a blunder in the negotiations. Councilor Toner wanted to know more this history and chase down the rumors. Given the leadership of the new city manager, he felt these restrictions should be resolved so that the City might get better options from the private sector.

Given the history (and the rumors), why is the City looking into building its own system?

[This is the point where, as in the Wizard of Oz, we switch from B&W to color; in this case, from the report to the quasi-transcript presentation. It’s weird, but it was the only way to do it.]

Toner: Some vocal folks don’t like Comcast monopoly, don’t believe its infrastructure is up to par with where we need to be, and wanted the option of the greater speed that a fiber optic connection provides. Some cities in the US have done this, but the previous city manager felt he did not want to pursue this because of its expense and the other priorities in the City. However, the council insisted on the feasibility study, which cost about $200,000. There have been two roundtable meetings.

Toner is happy with his service from Comcast, but would happily pay less for it. Is concerned that the City is about to spend a lot of money on something that the average citizen has not asked for and won’t benefit from. He wants to know more about how folks across the City view this project.

The survey was sent to 5000 people. 604 responded; 66% of respondents (around 400) expressed support for the system. Toner is concerned that key details about what the system would actually provide and charge its users were not available to inform the residents who received the survey about the meaningful realities of this system.

PSNA: Covid revealed that lots of families did not have the resources to support remote learning. The City provided a lot of this. Toner feels the City can close any equity gaps for students without building its own broadband system.

Klensin: Doesn’t have a problem with the City doing this, as long as the right questions are being asked before commitments are made. He feels important issues have not been raised or clarified.

One issue with Comcast is that its system is built with coaxial cable, which is fine for the cable TV system it built. The internet can run over it but cannot provide the levels of speed that we now want and expect; fiber is much faster. Unless Comcast replaces its cable with fiber, there are upper limits on what Comcast can do. But, does everyone really need it? Probably not. What you need depends on what you are doing.

He does not support the “future-proof” idea. A single piece of fiber and a single piece of cable have limited capacity; as you load more people on to either one, service is going to be slower. And most of us are not working with enormous files that we create or receive. Perhaps, in 5 years, if significantly more of us were creating movies to upload in real time, we would need such capacity, but Klensin is skeptical.

He noted that Comcast is dealing with an aging plant, and they will be fixing it forever even if they swapped all the cable for fiber. The work to upgrade its system to 10G that is being done right now does not involve installing fiber.

Toner: Wireless is being proposed as the alternative to investing in a physical infrastructure.

Klensin: Many issues here. First is that wireless doesn’t reach very far, and the faster the new technologies get, the shorter the reach. Even if every house in Cambridge had wireless, you would still need to physically connect the antennas that are feeding the wireless with something, and that connection would probably be fiber. Also, as the density of internet users increases, it’s possible to run multi-gigabyte pipes to your desk, but that traffic is ultimately consolidating into one pipe that connects you and your neighborhood. The more people who use the system, the more capacity you need.

PSNA: Concerned that a very small community in Cambridge is pushing for this. Large apartment complexes (Alewife, North Point), just like Harvard and MIT already have these services. Concerned that we will never get to that percentage of users that will take the cost level down to a reasonable level. Service providers have already picked off the bigger buildings and groups. Has the City really done the analysis of who really needs to be served by this proposed system? Is skeptical that the cost will be as low as the study claims.

Klensin: Wanted to clear up one possible misunderstanding, something that did not show up in Monday’s discussion. Harvard and MIT, who communicate with the outside world at data transfer levels that require fiber backbones dedicated to their needs can negotiate their own deal with providers. Not true for large apartment buildings; they are dealing with Comcast. The backbone providers do not want to deal with small actors because they don’t have the facilities and such to serve them. These “small actors” would be substantially larger than the average apartment building or complex.

Hawkinson: Many of the large new buildings do have Verizon FIOS. They have high speed and do not have to negotiate with ISPs. He believes that Verizon has a tariff requirement to serve every building with telephone service but does not want to build copper anywhere, which is expensive and impractical, so when they must provide landline service for new buildings, they use fiber, and that makes it easier to provide FIOS because the fiber is already there.

To address the concern about whether the cost analysis in the report includes these buildings and the impact of that absence on the costs, which are tied to levels of participation, he notes that it does. In the study (on page 3 of the final report), the difference in the cost of building the system is projected as $199 million if every household signs up and as $160 million at a 40% enlistment rate.

No strong opinion about whether to build the system, but is more optimistic than Klensin about the proposal.

Re: Fiber as future proof, he believes the consultants are saying that—unlike every other current data transmission technology—fiber has the capacity to dramatically change the capacity of data transmission by swapping out the equipment at both ends and the many boxes throughout the system without having to touch the stuff in the middle (i.e., adding more fiber or new fiber). The expense of running the fiber itself is significant.

Comcast does have fiber, but it does not go to houses. It gets as far as the poles and data/signals are converted there in one of the many boxes in its system into a form suitable for coaxial cable. Comcast is pushing fiber closer to homes, but it may not ever get there, and it may not even have to. But Comcast will be able to offer higher speeds if it wants to. (When? Who knows.) The consultants stressed that one value of the system may not be lower cost to users, but its existence removes the monopoly and requires Comcast to compete on price and on degree of service.

Klensin: Over time, will Comcast deal with some of the neighborhood capacity problems (i.e., bringing fiber to homes)? It’s a commercial strategy issue, and they’ll do what they do given their de facto monopoly.

Toner: His understanding of points made in the discussion so far is that if Comcast isn’t pushed to upgrade its systems, it won’t, which could put the City 1) in a deficit re: future needs for speed and 2) requiring an expenditure of $150–$200 million to get Comcast to drop his monthly internet cost from $70/month to $50/month to compete with the City’s rate.

Hawkinson: This is basically true. That said, a small number of residents do need a higher level of service right now. Comcast does not meet their needs, and the number of residents who do need it grows steadily.

Toner: Because Comcast won’t provide it at a decent cost for the desired capacity?

Winters: He has Comcast triple-play contract for phone, internet and cable. Cost is high; phone service is terrible. He spent $100 on a new phone solution, and by moving from a triple-play to double-play contract, the actual result was to increase his monthly cost.

He has not entered the world of streaming and doesn’t really understand it. Has not heard any discussion of what happens to those who watch TV occasionally, which is part of the Comcast package. If municipal broadband goes forward, does he still need Comcast to watch the Red Sox games? Or, does he have to go to an all-streaming future?

PSNA: Lives in 40-unit building on north Mass Ave. Internet reception in top floor of unit is terrible, so the household does all of its online work at the kitchen table, where reception is better, but not great. Watches three things on TV, one of which is Turner Classic Movies. Had to buy a Comcast package with three sports channels that are never watched just to get the movies.

Hawkinson: Generally, when internet service in the home is better in one room or area than another, the problem is in the home, not with the provider; the location of wi-fi router is often a problem, but it could be a bad cable.

This does touch the issue of Comcast customer service, though. They are universally reviled, so it’s hard to imagine doing worse. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that that the City government will provide good customer service.

Access to broadcast TV channels has been discussed in the process, but has not been addressed in the final report or in the two meetings with the City Council. One option could be that when the City secures an internet provider, it also secures someone to sell the channels. Another is that everyone is on their own and needs to set up their own streaming options. The good news on this is that more channels are moving to streaming, so this could become much easier than it is now.

PSNA: What about those of us who don’t want to be figuring out all these options and just want something that works?

Toner: I’ve been contemplating for years using Comcast for internet and installing an antenna for the TV, and stream everything else.

PSNA: This has been a really interesting discussion, but what do we do now?

Toner: City Manager has urged City Council to identify its top 5 priorities, saying that the City cannot do everything that everyone wants. The bonding needed to fund 10 such projects over 20 years or so adds up.

Winters: There’s an analogy here to Cambridge City Hospital. At one time, its funding was built into the budget, and ups and downs of the industry eventually led to setting up the Cambridge Health Alliance to avoid exposure to an increasingly risky business. Doesn’t have a sense of how financially secure this investment (in broadband) would be, but this proposal reverses a 25-year trend toward spinning off complex, expensive responsibilities.

PSNA: How do we get the City Council to slow down and look at the issues? Not confident that there’s anyone on the council or City payroll who can answer the questions that have come up in this discussion.

Toner: Believes there are people who can, but he is looking to gather concerns of average citizens about this. What is this doing for them? There are benefits to some in the City to have this, but is it really worth the cost to the average citizen? It may be, but he wants to have a deeper, open conversation. For a couple years, the push has been to complete the report. Now that it’s done, it seems to be a given that the City is going to do this. Wants to go into this discussion/decision with open eyes, and to be able to provide answers to people and what it will cost.

PSNA: Shares the concern that those who are not as immersed in the details as the speakers don’t have the info they need. Questions should be answered before we go forward.

Hawkinson: One good question for Councilor Toner to ask is what each phase presented in Table 26: Potential next steps (18 to 24 Months) of the large report will cost. Attach a dollar figure to each step/decision point. Concerned about the forward momentum that large expenditures establish without having answers to questions. $16 million annual expenditure on required bonding.

These are the decision points:

  1. Conduct market sounding
  2. Establish business model
  3. Launch an RFI (request for information)
  4. Prepare proper procurement documentation
  5. Evaluate bids
  6. Conduct contract negotiations
  7. Award contract

Project could be aborted at any point along this line.

PSNA: We are missing a lot of detail that residents want to know. People would want to understand that they have now and what this new system would give them. Devil is in the details. The big question to answer is this: How would this system lower my monthly Comcast bill?

Toner: An effective communication strategy would be this: Here’s Paul Toner’s cable bill. Show me what it would be if the broadband system were built.

Hawkinson: Some of this sort of public education will happen if Comcast feels the need to compete. The consultants sounded some alarm bells about that in that what Comcast might do is not lower prices for current customers but offer new customers sweeter deals or for current customers who threaten to switch. Probably true.

PSNA: When does the Comcast contract come up for renewal?

Hawkinson: It expired last year, but hasn’t been renewed.

Winters: At one point there was a lot of stuff to actually negotiate, but not anymore. Now it’s all education, public access, and government, which Comcast no longer has to pay for.

Hawkinson: The number of cable-only subscribers is falling, which is the only thing that Comcast has to pay for, so the amount of money keeps dropping year over year. At some point, it won’t be much at all, if anything.

Winters: Public access, like CCTV gets its funding from the cable part only. Eventually, its funding just dries up. There are ways to correct that, but other creative funding mechanisms will be needed.

Hawkinson: The technical issues in the process are being handled well. The important questions are the skeptical ones that people have.

He was struck by no mention of the water department, which is our one municipal utility. Does that mean the consultants did not consider it or that they thought the value of leveraging that service provider was useless. Not a critical path question; but it may be if it helps address the customer service questions. A big one is the customer service for the physical infrastructure vs. the service that is needed for the stuff delivered over it.

Klensin: If City hires an ISP to handle this stuff, the service record of that entity will be very important.

Next steps

Send questions to Councilor Toner;

Invite Councilor Nolan to the next meeting

Questions that need some answers

What does it mean for me? Higher taxes? Lower bills?

What is the billing going to be like?

Will it make the wi-fi in my apartment better?

Will I have to pay for TV channels that I pay for now?

What does the customer service arrangement look like when people discover they have problems the infrastructure or the content?

Do they have to dig a trench through my property to do this?

How many advanced degrees will I need to navigate the menus so that I can watch a Marx Brothers movie?

How could we make it more attractive to private sector to create some competition in Cambridge? For Verizon to lay fiber across Cambridge?

Is it worth $200 million?

When could we pull the plug on this before the city commits itself to it?