Build a fiber network in Boston
First in a series of editorials.
Deep in the DNA of the people of Massachusetts is the idea that what’s done here can shape the fate of the nation for the good. It is this Yankee instinct that spurred the state to lead in the fields of education and health care. But we also led on issues that required overcoming entrenched resistance, like the abolition of slavery and marriage equality. The citizens of the Commonwealth have repeatedly lent their enthusiasm and their tax money — sometimes given their lives — in service of ideas for the universal good, to causes bigger than themselves.
These are anxious times, our problems exacerbated by sclerotic dysfunction in Washington. We need to ask more and expect more. But gridlock in one place means more open roads elsewhere. States and cities have started chipping away at the emerging challenges we face: Texas leads the way on much-needed criminal justice reforms; Tennessee offers its residents free community college; New York State guarantees universal pre-K; Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles will all soon have $15 minimum wages.
It is no coincidence that these places are often dominated by a single political party. There is no party monopoly on virtuous ideas, of course, but these days, action is far easier in a one-party state. If Massachusetts wants to get big things done, partisan gridlock is rarely an obstacle. As Americans, we share a general belief in the purpose and power of human progress; as a state, we have a shared, specific sense of how that progress can be achieved.
In the coming months, this page will lay out a series of proposals designed to get our community thinking about what it will take to ensure broad prosperity for generations to come.
There are few better starting points to this discussion than building a fiber network in Boston.
That you can sit on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and have a Facetime chat on a cellphone with someone in, say, Rome, would seem to be evidence of a technological revolution that’s both ubiquitous and wireless. But such digital wizardry belies the rickety foundations on which our interconnected world rests.
The truth is that our tech infrastructure is in the same dismal shape as our roads and bridges. Boston, like a majority of American cities, pays more for slower Internet service than our international peers. If Boston is to remain a global hub of innovation — and on the “cutting edge of the common good,” as Mayor Martin J. Walsh promised in his State of the City address last month — it should build a citywide fiber-optic network that allows each residence and business an onramp to the information superhighway of the future.
Such metaphors are not tossed around lightly. President Obama one year ago said that cities that can build such fiber networks will be “like the first city to have fire.” Cities that have taken this path have already seen economic benefits. General Electric isn’t just moving its global headquarters to Boston, it is changing its business model to tackle the “Internet of Things.” Our city should as well.
An Internet of Things is primarily an Internet of people. To allow the residents of Beacon Hill and Roxbury, South Boston and the South End, Back Bay and Mattapan to all drive in the same technological fastlane is to both harness their creativity and allow them to maximize their potential. When the cutting edge ignores the common man, it exacerbates inequity.
Pedestrian Internet access in Boston is near universal, and laudable efforts continue to extend limited “wicked free” Wi-Fi into the city’s poorest corners. Tech companies like Comcast have invested lots of money in their own fiber/coaxial networks in Boston, and they have gotten incrementally faster over the years.
But Internet access delivered through cable, copper telephone lines, satellite, or various wireless avenues is inherently limited by the laws of physics. Simply put, these systems are slow. And as more and more users demand more and more from them — streaming television with 4k (and soon 8k) resolution, to give but one example — these avenues are going to reach their physical limits, just like a gridlocked highway.
That’s not the case with fiber, strands of glass that allow transmission of information at fantastic, futuristic speeds. Today, the average speed for an Internet user in Boston is 15 megabits-per-second, according to Akamai Technologies. That’s slower than in many American cities, including Dallas, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, and Austin. Fiber service, in contrast, is more than 100 times faster than the speeds we now have. It is the kind of system that would allow a full-length HD movie to download in about 30 seconds. And it’s the future.
Google is famously selecting and wiring a few lucky cities with fiber, an effort that is both breaking ground technologically and raising interest in fiber. But the City of Boston should not gamble its future competitiveness in a Mountain View lottery, nor should it entrust such vital infrastructure entirely to private hands.
The private market would be the ideal solution in an ideal world, but in Boston the market has failed. Those commercials for Verizon FiOS are spiffy — too bad that you can’t get it in town. Wiring the suburbs is far cheaper than wiring urban areas.
Even if you could find a provider in the city, it’ll cost you. A fiber connection from Comcast, for instance, is offered only to businesses, at a price tag that can run more than a thousand dollars per month, putting it out of reach for most startups. Companies have, at various times, considered extending fiber service to residential customers in Boston, but have abandoned plans to do so. Currently there are no fiber options under consideration, much less construction.
“The City of Boston cannot force Verizon to provide FiOS service here, nor can we force Comcast to lower prices, or get Google to build a new network here,” Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the city’s chief information office, told a City Council hearing in October. Again, the lack of residential fiber isn’t an inefficiency in the market — it is a lack of a functioning private market altogether.
A municipal project of this magnitude would no doubt be expensive. The City of Seattle, for instance, estimated building a fiber network would cost between $480 million and $665 million. But that is the nature of infrastructure projects. Highways or airports aren’t expected to turn a profit, nor should fiber networks. That doesn’t mean they won’t: Stockholm built a fiber network two decades ago that private companies operate, an arrangement that brings in millions of dollars per year.
There is also ample precedent for cities to establish their own utility companies to erect and manage vital infrastructure, as well as attractive options to fund such ventures. Chattanooga, Tenn., where the president made his comment about fire, has done so, as has Ceder Rapids, Iowa, and several others. There are more than 400 communities nationwide that have dipped their toes into municipal fiber in one way or another, including the Central Massachusetts town of Leverett, which created a public utility to wire the city with fiber and went live earlier this year. These utilities offer blazingly fast connectivity at prices competitive with far slower services like cable and DSL — as low as $24.95 per month. That, in turn, has sparked private sector competition for customers.
Private telecom companies are at the mercy of shareholders and are, understandably, often forced to prioritize short-term profits over long-term capital investments. That’s their prerogative. Cities, however, can issue bonds payable over decades, enough time to get the system to financial stability.
With no privately run fiber networks on the horizon for Boston, now is the time for the city to wire itself.
The benefits that come with fiber, beyond Internet connectivity for residents and businesses, are numerous and not always obvious. To start, it’d be the technological spine on which to layer the next generation of urban infrastructure.
The network would enable better traffic management, for instance, with real-time adjustment of stoplights. Jacksonville, Fla., recently opened a glittering new traffic management center, made possible by fiber lines. More cameras — while controversial — could be deployed, improving public safety.
Fiber could also integrate existing municipal sensor systems that track air quality, loads on bridges, and a host of other necessary but disjointed efforts. The network could also support development of a smarter power grid. A public option for fiber would ensure its design and operation could survive all matter of cataclysm, supporting vital city services and continued business operations.
Universal fiber access to Bostonians, that delivered phone, television, and data service, would have an immediate stimulative economic impact. Reducing a family’s telecommunications bill to a flat $25 per month would put a lot of money back in pockets. To top it off, a fiber spine could easily support free and universal, citywide Wi-Fi.
Standing up such a network from scratch isn’t quite the logistical leap it might seem. The city’s decades old dig-once policy has led to the laying of countless miles of city-owned conduit that would be ideal for a fiber network. (Dig-once means that when a street is dug up crews must lay some city-owned conduit for future use.) When Washington, D.C., was expanding its own nascent fiber network, workers simply tied fiber strands to outdated copper phone wires in city conduit and pulled the new lines through. Permitting of all future roadwork could be contingent on the installation of fiber lines across the city.
Nor is funding an insurmountable hurdle. There’s already an aptly named route to do so, through what the state classifies as municipal lighting plants. Public utilities have the ability to issue bonds, payable over decades as subscribers offset the initial costs. Just because Congress is apparently proud to leave money on the table by not funding infrastructure projects with interest rates at historic lows, doesn’t mean that Boston should follow.
The costs of such a project would be mostly upfront. Running a fiber line through city-owned conduits that are already running under Boston streets would be a good start. Neighborhoods could gradually be wired and brought online.
Once it is operational, the city could sell services for, say, $25 per month, or contract out the operation of the network to private companies, with regulated fee structures. In time, City Hall could contract out maintenance, customer service, and some operations, while maintaining ownership of the physical fiber.
In Austin and Chattanooga municipal networks have even spurred new investments from private telecoms. Price wars are rather common when a city ventures into this territory, another benefit to consumers. We’ll need this infrastructure however it gets built — better to have the city own the network and maximize its utility if the mayor wants to achieve that goal of staying on the cutting edge of the common good.
But make no mistake. Companies that currently provide phone and Internet service would view such a move by a city like Boston as a very serious — if not existential — threat to their bottom line. Telecoms are big employers, and they give heavily to political campaigns. Were such a system proposed, prepare for a deluge of ads smearing the venture as the Big Dig Redux.
And yet, is there anyone in Boston who yearns for a return of the filthy, noisy, elevated Southeast Expressway? The city once wisely buried a highway; now it’s time to bury a superhighway, too.