WORCESTER — With many Worcester residents expressing their unhappiness with Charter/Spectrum, the challenges and potential plans to achieve municipal broadband and Verizon’s plans to install fiber in the city were topics of discussion during a City Council meeting Monday.
Ellen Cummings, regional director for external and state government affairs for Verizon, explained the telecommunication company’s current plans and took questions from the Urban Technologies, Innovation and Environment Committee.
In 2021, Verizon approached the city to let officials know the company planned to install a fiber to the premises network, a network where optical fiber is run directly onto the premises of customers.
Due in part to the city’s density and abundance of underground space, Cummings said, installation of the fiber network is expected be an “intense” multiyear build performed in four phases.
Verizon will build out from its office on 15 Chestnut St., Cummings said, with the last part of the project in the Greendale neighborhood. Off of the phased builds, Verizon will use feeder routes to connect to various streets in the city.
Verizon will notify residents when their street can join the network or they can search the company’s website to see if their address qualifies.
Cummings said Verizon plans to provide a “double play” of broadband and phone services to the city. However, Verizon will not be seeking to establish a cable franchise in Worcester, Cummings said, because customers prefer choosing which channels and services they wish to stream rather than buying a traditional cable package.
“We found that’s mainly what people want. They want to be able to go in. They want to purchase what they want,” Cummings said. “They’re not looking to purchase a traditional cable service anymore.”
In the same year when Verizon approached the city, residents were not shy about airing their issues with Charter/Spectrum at two Public Service and Transportation Committee meetings, with public comment lasting an hour and a half for the first meeting.
Research Bureau assessment
Two Worcester Regional Research Bureau reports, one released in 2020 and another in 2022, document the internet accessibility issues many residents in the city face.
In 2020, the Worcester Regional Research Bureau found that broadband speeds in the city were lacking and recommended that the city should look at a municipal broadband network.
The 2022 report found that while broadband access had improved, most of the growth in access was almost entirely driven by cellphone users.
After ThisWeekinWorcester reported City Manager Eric D. Batista said municipal broadband looked “very impossible” for Worcester on the radio show Talk of the Commonwealth, Batista returned to the show Thursday and told host Hank Stolz that while he did not want to say municipal broadband was impossible, it would be “difficult and challenging.”
Batista acknowledged that residents appear to want more options than Charter/Spectrum for internet access. He said during the radio interview that the city not owning its electrical grid put it at a disadvantage compared to Shrewsbury or Chattanooga, Tennessee, which have municipal broadband systems, with Chattanooga gaining national attention for its implementation of municipal broadband.
Buying the grid from National Grid would be a tough negotiation, Batista said.
District 3 Councilor George Russell asked Monday if the potential of competition to Charter/Spectrum coming from Verizon or other providers would mean if it made less sense for the city to pursue a costly municipal broadband network.
Change in dynamic
Michael Hamel, chief information officer for the city, said the entrance of competition from Verizon, as well as T-Mobile offering 5G service, changed the dynamic of broadband in the city.
State and federal money for municipal broadband networks tend to focus on specific projects for underserved communities without an existing broadband provider and not large-scale city projects, Hamel said.
Vendors have told the city’s Municipal Broadband Taskforce that a buildout for a municipal network would cost an excess of a quarter billion dollars to build fiber in addition to building a municipal utility operating company.
Communities who approached another model, a privately funded network built and maintained by a third party, have been met with varying degrees of success, Hamel said.
Worcester Regional Research Bureau Executive Director and CEO Paul Matthews said opportunities exist in the state to provide funding to address digital access disparities.
While American Rescue Plan Act funding may no longer be applicable for a feasibility study following federal guidelines, District 5 Councilor Etel Haxhiaj, chair of the committee, said she still prefers the city move forward with a feasibility study for municipal broadband. Haxhiaj said she believes the community is interested in the city having a plan for a long-term broadband vision in the city.
“That’s what I feel a study could do for us … to give us a long-term and short-term roadmap for how we can serve all of our residents,” Haxhiaj said.
Haxhiaj filed two requests to conduct a feasibility study on municipal broadband and to look into whether there are resources the city can use to address digital equity.