George Russell’s internet connection was not cooperating. And that was a challenge for the Worcester City Councilor during a recent public meeting.
The topic? Improving internet access in the city. Instead of making his point before the Standing Committee on Urban Technologies, Innovations and the Environment, Russell’s video froze, and the audio stuttered.
“Councilor Russell, I think you're having problems with your broadband,” Committee Chairman Matthew Wally remarked.
Russell, who later re-joined the meeting, isn’t the only person in the city facing this problem. About one-third of Worcester households lack broadband, also called high-speed internet, and 18% of Worcester households have no internet access at all — generally because it's too expensive, or because certain neighborhoods are located in so-called "dead zones" where internet coverage is not available, according to a July report from the Worcester Regional Research Bureau.
COVID-19, which has transformed homes into offices and schools for many, has underscored a point some in Worcester have been making for years: The city needs reliable, affordable internet.
“Going into the pandemic, I think people were aware that internet access was an important issue, but it certainly drove it to the top of the agenda,” said Paul Matthews, executive director of the research bureau.
As a possible remedy, the city is now considering municipally owned and operated broadband, which the report said is available in six cities and towns in Massachusetts and 560 across the country.
Two communities in Massachusetts with municipal broadband told GBH News they can offer competitive prices and speeds that meet or exceed the bandwidth offered by their commercial competitors. And, as municipalities pay down debt on infrastructure, prices could become cheaper still than commercial rates.
Shrewsbury, about 10 miles east of Worcester, has offered municipal broadband to customers there since 2001. The town has about 14,000 municipal customers, but every home and business has access to service.
“Much like roads and bridges, we can extend out our plant investments over a longer time horizon because we know it's going to better suit economic development in the community,” said Christopher Roy, general manager for Shrewsbury Electric and Cable Operations.
But there’s at least one big difference between the neighboring communities: Shrewsbury has a municipal electric company. Worcester does not. And when it comes to providing internet access, controlling the infrastructure could make a big difference.
“There is law that allows for municipal use on that space,” Roy explained. But those infrastructural costs can be tied to meeting safety requirements. And that can be expensive, he said.
Chicopee, in Western Massachusetts, is more recent to the municipal broadband game and is taking a different approach, explained James Lisowski, Chicopee Electric Light General Manager. There, internet infrastructure is being added periodically.
“Some communities have taken a very aggressive approach,” Lisowski said. “What I call the ‘Field of Dreams’ approach. Build it, and they will come. And there's the approach that we ultimately decided to take, which is: We will build it, if you show you'll buy the service.”
When enough customers in a neighborhood agree to join Crossroads Fiber, Chicopee’s municipal broadband service, the needed systems, so-called “fiberhoods,” are built.
Members of two different Worcester city committees have publicly discussed the research bureau’s report in recent weeks and are urging city leadership to study the issue.
In the interim, the school district has given out hotspots to families in need. The district hopes to strike a deal with Charter Spectrum, the only residential internet provider in the city, for more affordable student internet.
But internet challenges have an impact beyond education.
Dr. Eric Alper, who oversees health technology at UMass Memorial Health Care, said telemedicine visits — where patients see a doctor over the internet — became the new normal during COVID-19. But this has proven problematic for patients without reliable internet.
“We heard from patients that [say] they need to make choices about … how they use their data because they’re on much more limited plans,” Alper said. “And for those patients, they needed to make a choice about whether or not they use telemedicine. And that's obviously not where we want to be.”
Mary Jo Marión, the assistant vice president of urban affairs at Worcester State University, considers internet accessibility “a basic rights issue.”
Marión has spent much of her career advancing policy issues that affect Latinos in the United States. According the research bureau’s report, 59 percent of Latinos in Worcester have broadband internet access, compared to 70 percent of non-Latinos.
“Maybe it would be kind of akin to not all students having a book,” she said. “We wouldn't stand for that if some classes or some schools got a textbook and some didn't.”
This is not the first time Worcester has looked at ways to improve internet access.
Worcester Mayor and School Committee Chairman Joseph Petty said the City Council examined the issue in the 2000s and has discussed it periodically. He said it is a problem that needs a more comprehensive solution.
“I'm open to anything,” Petty said. “Whether that be municipal, 100% owned, or be a public-private partnership.”
The Worcester City Council may decide in the coming weeks whether to take a serious look at studying if municipal broadband would be a good choice for Worcester.
Petty, and others, said cost will be a major consideration. The research bureau report suggested the city hire a consultant to crunch those numbers. Other communities that have looked at the expense have found the cost of creating municipal broadband ranged from $4 million in Concord to well over $100 million in Cambridge.