Friday, Nov. 21, 2003
forums: How Well Does Media Serve
Cambridge Citizens? and How
Can Information Technologies Serve Cambridge?
a decade, the convergence of the computer and telecommunications
industries has inspired grand predictions of a bright new world
of freedom and prosperity . . . an "e-topia." And
we have seen advanced communications technologies help to improve
business practices, enhance medical services, enrich educational
opportunities and deliver a wide array of entertainments to
our homes. But how can these advanced telecommunications services
be used to foster strong local democratic communities? How are
these communications technologies being used, if at all, in
the City of Cambridge? And what role, if any, does local government
play in making sure 21st-century communications technologies
serve public needs?
Mitchell, is the academic head of the MIT Media Lab
and author of several books on how advanced communications technologies
can be used to benefit communities, including e-topia: "Urban
Life, Jim But Not As We Know It." Mitchell will
discuss the civic use of communications technologies.
Following Mitchell's presentation, debaters will address
the municipal ownership of communications servcies:
Barrett is the director of research at the Beacon
Hill Institute at Suffolk University. He manages the Institute's
State Tax Analysis Modeling Program (STAMP) and conducts research
for other projects at the Beacon Hill Institute.
N. Horwood is an attorney with Spiegel & McDiarmid,
a Washington D.C. law firm that represents local and state governments
and consumers on infrastructure issues, particularly those involving
energy, telecommunications, the environment, and transportation.
MITCHELL believes that understanding the relationship between
new communications technology and the use of architectural space
is key to developing cities in the 21st century. To begin, he
recalled the early days of computers, when they were large,
rare, and expensive beasts. People who wanted to do computational
work had to go to a computer center. This was like the experience
of going to a village well for water; the computer offered a
scarce and precious resource. It occupied special sites available
to a privileged few.
later in the1990s, a democratization of computing occurred with
the development of the internet, networking, and the low cost
personal computer. Mitchell showed a slide of an outdoor café
table with a wired computer for public use in Adelaide, Australia.
The slide illustrated how in this era, you had access to computer
and communications technology at wherever the infrastructure
extended, but the extent of access was still limited.
with the proliferation of portable devices and wireless technology,
access to communications is virtually everywhere. People can
informally appropriate space for computing, superimposing new
functions onto locations by means of wireless access. This results
in interesting social effects. Around the MIT campus, informal
locations like cafes, outdoor areas, and the nooks and crannies
of corridors are being used for getting work done. Something
that has changed the dynamics in classrooms is the student's
ability to look up information related to the lecture on the
internet. It creates an intensity and speed in the discussion
that is exhilarating and qualitatively different. These examples
demonstrate the strong relationships between the way technology
works, particular physical settings, and the kinds of social
situations that arise.
areas can also be transformed by this flexible, ad-hoc use of
space. Free wireless access available in Manhattan's Bryant
Park has changed the use of the park, drawing people out of
surrounding office buildings to do work in good weather. It
also increased the value of the surrounding real estate by adding
to the amenity to the public space.
commercially established wireless networking technology is 802.11.
Fundamentally, it is inexpensive, incremental, and can be deployed
in grassroots kinds of ways. A large-scale infrastructure program
is not needed to transform the public spaces of a city. Wireless
technology allows for experimentation and small-scale projects
that have potentially great impacts. To conclude, Mitchell showed
a map of Newbury Street in Boston, which is now blanketed with
wireless hotspots that have given the commercial district new
patterns of activity.
THORBURN, director, MIT Communications Forum: A problem
that has struck many of us is how to respond to the terrific
rate of change of technologies. A city could commit to a certain
kind of technology that is quickly supplanted by something new.
How do we deal with the instability of technological platforms?
That is a very profound problem. First of all, that is why experimental
and incremental approaches that do not involve high-risk bets
on the technologies are the best strategies. Secondly, the social
goals that are achieved are robust and worthwhile, even if the
technological decisions are not perfect.
Why do you think Cambridge does not have more wireless access
now, especially with the presence of schools like MIT and Harvard?
Universities are not necessarily well positioned to be infrastructure
developers for cities. They are better at things like providing
useful resources, such as MIT's OpenCourseWare program.
The deployment of wireless technologies has made individual
access easier. What architectural influences could encourage
more group interaction?
Years ago when MIT started to wire up dorm rooms, one of the
consequences was that many students never left their rooms.
The social effect was fragmentation and a diminished use of
public space. Now, since we have provided access in lounges
and cafés, it has taken group interactions out to public
spaces. If you think of public space as the manifestation of
community, this is an important result.
What specific environments in Cambridge would make good locations
for free wireless access?
Besides libraries and community centers, I would love to see
the main urban spaces such as Massachusetts Avenue, the banks
of the Charles River, and the major squares blanketed with wireless
access. It would intensify the life in these locations. In good
weather, outdoor spaces will have a new overlay of activity.
If wireless is the future of public space, what is the future
of public art?
It is interesting to think about how you can overlay narrative
onto public space, or how you can make the stories of certain
places come alive. Cambridge, with its rich history and diverse
population, has many stories to tell, related to particular
locations in the city. One extraordinary thing I would like
to see done on a large scale would be to make these narratives
come alive on portable devices as you move around the city.
What about the public good involved in creating communication
infrastructure projects, which are so few in the United States?
How would one articulate the argument to justify the expense
involved in these projects?
Thorburn (left) with William Mitchell
One part of the answer is that the expense is not necessarily
great. I have already mentioned that small-scale projects can
have great effects. I'll give you three more arguments. First
of all, public space is fundamentally important to any city.
They have to make the space work, not just create the space
on the map. They must have attractions that will draw people
into them. Many traditional things no longer work, much like
the concept of the village well. However, one thing that does
attract these days is the ability to do multiple tasks in a
public space. Secondly, a city like Cambridge depends on its
competitiveness for attracting talented and highly mobile people.
Cambridge has many attractions now, but so do many other places.
Providing new levels of civic amenities that attract and retain
talent is an important economic strategy. Finally, improving
public spaces is a way of creating social equity.
2003, the Cambridge City Counsel put a question to the city
manager's office about whether the city should establish its
own cable system. John Barrett and James N. Horwood gave their
views on this question.
BARRETT became interested in the municipal overbuilds of
cable systems when the town of Norwood, Massachusetts, who was
interested in entering the broadband market, asked the Beacon
Hill Institute to research similar projects around the country.
He has seen three major reasons that municipalities give to
justify entrance into the broadband market. First is to spur
economic growth, which is an unreasonable goal for very small
towns. Next, cities complain about the lack of competition in
the private sector. Finally, there is the claim that their goal
is not profit, but to lower internet and telephone rates for
citizens. Barrett believes that when the aim is not profit at
some level, inefficient decisions are inevitably made.
that are traditionally provided by the public sector - such
as electricity, water, or police services - have relatively
low stable capital requirement. These services either rely on
human capital, or on infrastructure that needs little reinvestment
over the years. They are public monopolies, with which the public
has little choice. If more capital is needed, the city can get
funding from revenue bonds.
of the broadband market are completely opposite. It is highly
capital-intensive, and the technology is fluid and changing.
Fierce competition exists not only with other cable providers,
but with satellite TV operators as well. Because bond issuers
deem the business as too risky, projects will not be funded
by revenue bonds. Instead, general obligation bonds are issued,
which may have to be paid back from taxes.
is a lack of competition in the market, the town should ask
why only one provider exists. Shrewsbury, Massachusetts was
successful with its municipal cable operation largely because
no one else was providing service from the start. A private
company near the area would not compete against the town, because
Shrewsbury was too small to support two companies, and would
not be worth the capital investment.
a town must ask itself, what are the possible outcomes if they
enter the market? Typically, there are two results. If a municipality
enters the market against an existing competitor, they may end
up splitting the customer pool 50-50, and then both will suffer
losses. A large company like Comcast can stand the loss and
make their profits in other markets, but the city does not have
that luxury. In the other scenario, the city succeeds and the
incumbent is forced out. However, the public provider is now
responsible for keeping up with the technology, and must constantly
issue new bonds to fund it. If the technology does not work
out, the tax rates go up.
N. Horwood (left) and John Barrett
N. HORWOOD provided a different perspective. Federal legislation
was intended to create competition in the telecommunications
market, but failed because of the dominant companies' strong-arm
tactics. Horwood believes the only way to bring competition
and discipline the market is if municipalities enter with a
different motivation, which is not necessarily profit, but answering
to citizens and providing benefits to society. Competition from
municipalities is in the public interest. .
also believes that the concern of increased taxes is overblown.
As long as a feasibility study is done, and a reasonable business
plan is drawn, a city will at least recover costs. Norwood,
Massachusetts chose to move forward after their feasibility
analysis. After being in operation for a year, they are currently
ahead of schedule in rolling out their services.
must keep in mind however, that almost all the municipalities
with telecommunications systems were experienced with providing
other utilities. Cambridge does not have a municipal electric
system, so constructing a business plan would be more difficult.
responded with some additional points about the Norwood study.
When the town was deciding whether or not to enter the broadband
market, the incumbent provider was AT&T, who had plenty
of problems at the time. They were not upgrading their systems,
and were waiting for others to buy them out. Comcast has since
taken over and upgraded the area. Norwood has been in business
for a year, and they have around 2,300 customers. Their business
plan needs 61% of the market to succeed, which may have been
reasonable against AT&T, but not Comcast.
problem for municipal providers is programming costs, which
are a large part of cable costs. For every channel they wish
to carry, they must deal with each individual programmer and
pay a per-subscriber rate. Companies such as Comcast have subscribers
nationwide, and pay a lower rate because advertisers will be
reaching a greater audience. Comcast itself owns channels as
well. If a town like Norwood approaches Comcast to buy programming,
they cannot expect to get a favorable deal from their competitor.
However, HORWOOD pointed out that a national cooperative
of municipal cable systems and smaller private providers exists,
who negotiate with programmers in bulk.
both speakers emphasized the importance of doing a thorough
feasibility analysis. While Barrett remains skeptical that a
company not motivated by profit could be efficient, Horwood
believes the city should eventually move forward as long as
they think they have a winning proposition, and are prepared
to fight with incumbent forces.
LLOYD, MIT Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Scholar: Bill
Mitchell just spent a lot of time discussing wireless technology.
Would it make sense for Cambridge to leapfrog over the problem
of investing in cable infrastructure, and spur wireless technology
It depends on the goal. The earlier issue was transforming public
spaces. Cable is different, because it provides a service to
every individual home that wants it.
Wireless is not a substitute for everything cable provides,
such as video. Also, I do not think it has the level of security
that a wired technology does.
Why do you think the increased interest by municipalities to
enter the telecommunications market is such a hot issue today?
People are very dissatisfied with the prices and level of service
they are getting with big companies. And there is the motivation
for smaller cities to attract and retain talented residents
and businesses. There are cases such as Cedar Falls, Iowa, who
went into the municipal telecommunications business and thrived
with new jobs, leaping ahead of neighboring cities.
I think it depends on the city. Remember that many municipalities
with cable operations were successful at providing electric
service, which makes the business slightly easier.
Although Cambridge no longer provides electrical services, it
still provides water. Are there any other specific factors about
Cambridge that might point to either success or failure at running
its own cable operation?
I think there are points for both sides. Unlike more rural towns,
Cambridge is relatively dense, so it would be able to access
more homes in a small area. On the downside, the city would
be competing with a couple of other operators. Furthermore,
I think Cambridge residents lack the overall loyalty to the
city. A large percentage of the population is either students
or transient, and do not necessarily have civic loyalty. You
need people who will choose to support their city, which is
more common in smaller towns.
What prevents a municipality from censoring programs in a city-owned
The Cable Communications Act of 1984 requires that there
be a body separate from the city government that makes programming
But that body would still made up of fellow citizens.
How would the quality of service provided by municipalities
compare with that of the private companies?
There is no comparison because the municipalities approach it
from a different standpoint. For private companies, who are
out to make money rather than provide a public utility, there
is a drive to cut costs and therefore provide lower services.
But there is one problem with that theory. The customer service
involved in cable is very different from the service in other
utilities. People probably inquire about programming more often
than they would about electricity or water.
Is it true that a community like Cambridge, with about 100,000
residents, could only support one cable company at a time? Is
it possible to have competition in a market this small?
I believe it is possible. Tacoma, Washington, which is about
twice the size of Cambridge, is probably the largest municipal
system. Their Click! Network is doing well, and they have billed
themselves as "America's most wired city." Comcast
is also in business there, and both are surviving. It is important
to note that companies are now providing multiple services.
Since each subscriber pays more, they can survive with smaller
levels of penetration.
I'm not sure if Cambridge is large enough. Somerville has RCA
and Comcast, but I don't know if they are both profitable. As
for the Tacoma Click! Network, their biennial finance report
projected revenue of $27 million, but they came up with only
$21 million. Meanwhile, because they are trying to expand their
network, they ended up spending $45 million.
From a standpoint of economic development and looking toward
the future, wouldn't a publicly provided cable infrastructure
with lower rates create an environment that would encourage
e-business and local startups?
I think in a perfect world, if Cambridge could get into the
business and provide lower rates and survive, that would be
true. But marginally, how much more would they be providing
that is already available? In a more rural city, the marginal
impact could be much greater.
I also want
to mention that so far we have been talking about the business
model where the city builds and operates the whole system itself,
but there are other options. The city could take on the role
of building the infrastructure, but lease the fiber out to other
competitors. There are pros and cons to this approach, but that
is one way to limit the risks while fostering competition.
by Lilly Kam
--photos by Joellen Easton