Last Thursday, the City Council Urban Technologies, Innovation and Environment Committee (MA) pushed for the formation of a task force to close the digital divide. The task force’s primary objective is to assess the feasibility of implementing a municipally-owned broadband network similar to other communities in the state, reported The Telegram.
“There is a digital divide that exists in this city,” District 5 Councilor Matthew E. Wally said. “This could be an opportunity for us to bring more equity throughout the city from an education, economic, and public health perspective.”
The Telegram reported that broadband in Worcester is only available via Charter/Spectrum, which some say creates inequitable access to high-speed internet service. According to a recent report by the Worcester Regional Research Bureau, nearly 33 percent of Worcester households did not have broadband, while almost 18 percent of all households had no internet access.
The digital divide was a significant issue in the spring when many public schools switched to remote learning due to the pandemic. “These gaps are not evenly distributed geographically,” Tom Quinn, a research associate with The Research Bureau, said.
According to Paul Matthews, executive director of The Research Bureau, the cost of a municipally-owned broadband network will be a factor. It “would require a large investment on the city’s part.”
Other communities looking into municipal solutions, including Springfield and Cambridge, estimate costs at $50 million and $185 million, respectively. An estimate is not yet available for Worcester, reported The Telegram.
District 3 Councilor George J. Russell said many of the communities with municipal internet networks also have their own electric light companies. As a result, it’s easier and more cost-effective to provide internet service due to existing infrastructure, equipment, and personnel. Russell is also concerned about whether a solution will be future proof.
Eileen M. Cazaropoul, the city’s chief information officer who heads the Technical Services Department, added that state funding is typically available for rural efforts with fewer options for more urban areas. She also noted that a “municipal broadband system requires additional investments even after it is in place because it will have to be continually maintained and modernized going forward.”