Digital Divide Policy Order Response
On Monday May 7th, City Councilor Quinton Zondervan will introduce a policy order intended to set the City on a path to improve digital equity. Upgrade Cambridge supports the intent of the order and thanks Councilor Zondervan and City staff who worked with him for taking these steps. We think it’s valuable that this order sets actual deadlines and quantitative benchmarks to meet its goal for universal affordable access to the Internet. However, we think the order is insufficient in a number of ways.
The policy order states that bridging the digital divide must be implemented in a manner that is “revenue neutral” or “revenue positive.” It is extraordinary that the City would consider working on a critical social justice issue only if it doesn’t cost any money. The Council should demand an explanation from the City why it considers this issue one on which no money should be spent. The Council should also seek clarification of what the City means by being “revenue positive” before committing to this path: there are many options for funding a long-term solution to the digital equity issues the city faces, and we should not limit our options at such an early stage in the process.
The quantitative and qualitative assessment of digital equity issues is critically important. You can’t solve a problem you don’t understand. Upgrade Cambridge has spent time trying to characterize the unconnected in Cambridge and have concluded that you cannot do so without talking to the members of the marginalized communities using well established assessment mechanisms. The Council should ensure that the City is committed to that level of community engagement.
Setting quantitative benchmarks for “affordable” broadband is an important step when considered in the context of a Federal government that seeks to lower its own standards. Upgrade Cambridge believes that this is a step down the wrong path. It accepts the myth of bandwidth scarcity, one that Comcast and other telecoms promote for their own reasons of profit. Cambridge should not accept “poor internet for poor people” as a bedrock principle of digital equity because, on its face, it isn’t equitable. When the City, for example, discounts the price of water for seniors, it doesn’t limit its flow or provide second-class water. The Internet should not be any different.
The emphasis on public housing has a logic to it as it may provide the most benefit to the most people the most quickly. But Cambridge prides itself in the many means it uses to add to the supply of affordable housing. A digital equity process can’t ignore these low income families as some in units created through inclusionary zoning may not have access to any sort of affordable broadband.
The review of the City’s dig once policy is another important step, one that would lead to less disruption of the streets and lower costs for City-installed networking. Equally important is “one touch make ready,” regulations that force utilities to coordinate access to to utility poles. As roughly 75% of our telecommunication infrastructure is on poles, the City should review these regulations as well.
With the loss of net neutrality and internet privacy protections, it’s important that the City fill that policy void by including net neutrality and privacy guarantees into network services it helps create.
Upgrade Cambridge believes that the public option - a community-owned network - provides the best way to guarantee reliable, fast, and affordable access to the Internet for all Cambridge residents, regardless of the ability to pay. Municipal broadband would, as many cities have found, pay for itself with subscriber revenue and, with the appropriate pricing structure, would enable 80% of the subscribers to subsidize 20% of us, while paying lower prices than we all do now.
We urge the Council to pass, with modifications, this Order as it begins to address an issue that has laid dormant for far too long. We also urge the Council to engage in ongoing oversight of this process so that the City’s actions remain completely transparent.