One thing the coronavirus pandemic has made abundantly clear: internet is a necessity. As schools are forced to utilize remote learning, and many people continue to work from home, there is no denying that everyone relies on internet in their daily lives.

But according to a report from the Worcester Regional Research Bureau, 18% percent of Worcester is without internet access. And, only 67% have a broadband subscription, or high-speed internet connection.

The statistic comes as part of the Bureau’s “Broadening Broadband: Considering Municipal Ownership as a Solution to Worcester’s Internet Challenges” report, which MassLive previously reported on when it was published in July.

The report suggests the city invest in municipal broadband as a solution to challenges the city faces in regards to internet. Those challenges include: access, price and speed, according to the Bureau’s report.

The Bureau points out Spectrum is the majority option for Worcester residents and that creates a “regional monopoly, lack of infrastructure investment and a prioritization of profits over service.”

Since the publication of the report in July, School Committee member Tracy O’Connell Novick and City Councilor Matthew Wally have expressed their support behind the Bureau’s findings.

Novick, a member of the Standing Committee on School and Student Performance, put forward a motion, which was approved, requesting City Council to explore the idea and provide a detailed cost analysis of the potential municipal broadband investment. Wally, chair of the City Council Urban Technologies, Innovation and Environment Committee, and his two other committee members, recently proposed a task force be created to explore the feasibility of creating a municipally owned broadband.

The report, however, has not come without criticism.

New England Cable and Telecommunications Association, a regional trade association representing largely all private cable telecommunications companies in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont, has issued a letter to the Bureau claiming some of its statistics are inaccurate, or misleading, including the claim that 18% of Worcester lacks internet access.

“Contrary to the WRRB report stating that 18 percent of Worcester residents have no access to the internet, at least 99% of Worcester residents have access to Charter’s proven and reliable high-speed broadband service, including their low-cost broadband plan Spectrum Internet Assist for low-income families,” NECTA’s president Tim Wilkerson writes.

NECTA argues the option for residents to access internet exists in Worcester, but it’s whether or not they subscribe to a service that leads to 18% of Worcester not having an internet connection – the act of adoption, not access, it contends.

“There is a fundamental and meaningful difference between having access to broadband connectivity – meaning the physical infrastructure exists outside your home or business, and the service is available to purchase – and the actual adoption or purchase of that broadband service,” Wilkerson writes. “This misunderstanding will lead people to believe that physical broadband infrastructure is the solution needed to solve access problems, when programs to help with broadband adoption are the most efficient, least costly and much more effective solution. While there are still some towns in Massachusetts that are unserved by broadband due to the lack of broadband infrastructure, Worcester is not one of them.”

The Worcester Regional Research Bureau responded to these claims in a live interview with MassLive last Thursday.

“First off, this data is from the U.S. Census,” Worcester Regional Research Bureau executive director Paul Matthews stated to MassLive. “We’re not presenting that coverage map saying ‘That’s the coverage map for Charter Spectrum.’ It’s not labeled as the coverage map for Charter Spectrum because that’s not what is is…What this report is utilizing is Census-based data on who doesn’t have access. It’s not to say that they don’t have the ability to subscribe to Charter Spectrum.”

Matthews agrees the physical ability to subscribe to internet in Worcester exists, but contends the subscription itself is not accessible to all residents in Worcester, a city comprised of large varying socioeconomic backgrounds.

“I think we all recognize that certain pockets of the city are, to put it kindly, economically disadvantaged,” he said. “This isn’t necessarily saying that they don’t have the ability to sign on.”

The Bureau’s research associate Tom Quinn echoed Matthews’ sentiment.

“When the federal government says you don’t have internet access, what they mean is you’re not connected,” Quinn stated. “…Charter Spectrum is saying that their internal numbers say that everybody in Worcester has the potential to have an internet connection, and I don’t doubt that. But what internet access means is maybe it’s too expensive, so people don’t have it. Or maybe they, for a variety of reasons, can’t get the money or whatever they need to get an internet subscription. We don’t draw distinction between access meaning hypothetical access as NECTA, which is a lobbying group that represents Charter, does. We try to use objective data, which, in this case, comes from the federal government and U.S. Census Bureau.”

Municipal broadband, the Worcester Regional Research Bureau argues, would give the city control over the internet, which would allow for a variety of different ways to get all Worcester residents connected to high-speed internet.

“If you have a municipal system, you’re not at the mercy of a private company,” Quinn stated. “The city could do whatever they want. They could, for example, identify all the households of Worcester school kids and give them free internet. They could lower the price for certain populations…The short answer is that the internet gets more affordable if it’s your government providing it instead of a private company.”

In their letter to the Bureau, NECTA claims the track record of government owned networks is full of inefficiencies and failures, all which come at the expense of the taxpayer, citing Groton, Connecticut as an example.

“Promising gigabit speeds at unrealistically low prices, promoters of these GON (government owned networks) convinced taxpayers to spend millions of dollars, only to have costs spiral, consumer adoption fall far below projections, and operating and maintenance costs overwhelm revenues.”

Addressing costs associated to municipal broadband in the report, the Research Bureau contends that the funding mechanisms for building a network are tied to the business model chosen, and that there are many.

“In many cases, both in larger cities like Chattanooga and smaller towns like Leverett, Mass., grant funding from the federal or state governments helps with initial design costs, infrastructure costs or both,” the report reads. “Other cities, like Chicopee and Westfield in Massachusetts, build out networks neighborhood by neighborhood to spread out the initial construction costs, guarantee a level of resident interest and therefore revenue, or both. Because municipal networks are revenue generators, many communities issues bonds or debt service instead of raising taxes.”

In July, Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty, City Manager Edward Augustus Jr. and Worcester Public Schools Superintendent Maureen Binienda sent a letter to Charter Communications, which serves customers through the brand Spectrum, admonishing the company for its service. The city leaders asked Spectrum to provide affordable service, writing, “Our students should not be penalized for having the misfortune of living in a city served by your company.”

“We are continuing negotiations with Charter for a better, low-cost option for our families in our city, but there’s still outstanding issues with their proposal. We’re working together with them,” Petty told MassLive in August.

Related Content:

Should Worcester invest in municipal broadband?

Is internet accessible in Worcester? Should broadband be in the hands of the private sector? Share your thoughts in a live interview with the Worcester Regional Research Bureau on Thursday at 4 p.m. as we discuss their "Broadening Broadband" report.

Posted by MassLive Worcester on Thursday, October 1, 2020

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