Cambridge (MA) officials are scrambling for a solution to the digital divide since 50 percent of residents lack home internet access, according to the Cambridge Housing Authority (CHA). Although a municipal broadband project was floated, the city blocked the idea due to financial concerns, reported WickedLocal. The city also promised a Request for Proposal (RFP) regarding a municipal broadband feasibility study in June, and it has still not been released.
“The focus has been on costs and risks and not on the transformational aspect of a ubiquitous broadband infrastructure,” said Saul Tannenbaum, a committee member of the grassroots group Upgrade Cambridge. “What do you do about digital equity when you’ve ignored the problem for years, and it suddenly becomes the important thing people were warning you it was about to become,” Tannenbaum added. “At this point, there aren’t a lot more options than to spend money on it.”
Due to the pandemic, the digital divide is impacting children as well as adults, reported WickedLocal. As a response to COVID-19, Cambridge Public Schools distributed roughly 450 hotspots accessible on school-issued Chromebooks, and 49 families were given access to a Comcast Internet Essentials plan at $10 per month.
According to David Talbot from CTC Technology & Energy, only 24 percent of CHA residents use Internet Essentials, and 50 percent were unaware of the program. Talbot presented his findings to the Neighborhood & Long Term Planning, Public Facilities, Arts & Celebration Committee in November.
Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Business Association, communicated her dissatisfaction with the delay. “Had we done it when we were supposed to do it and had we had the infrastructure in place, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Cambridge children would be faring better,” said Jillson.
According to Councilor Marc McGovern, the delay is due to a disconnect between what the City Council wants, what citizens want, and how the city is moving forward, reported WickedLocal. McGovern said many residents who contact him are more concerned with short-term solutions, and he’s unclear whether municipal broadband is the best option. “If [the city is] so convinced that [they] are right, do the study and prove that you are right, and then we’ll be done,” he said.
Roy Russell, a member of Upgrade Cambridge’s Steering Committee, called out the difference between short-term solutions the city has provided, and long-term, digital divide solutions. “Don’t conflate digital equity, short term, with municipal broadband, which is long term,” said Russell.
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