Broadband misconceptions in Massachusetts

Published: 12/10/2020 1:24:22 PM
Modified: 12/10/2020 1:24:12 PM

The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear the importance of high-speed internet in Massachusetts for school, work and connecting with family over the holidays — and broadband providers in Massachusetts are taking proactive steps to ensure that families and students can stay connected.

They’ve pledged not to terminate service for customers unable to pay their bills, waived late fees, opened up thousands of free Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the commonwealth, invested over a billion dollars in programs to help low-income individuals get connected and partnered with municipalities and schools to provide subsidized high-speed internet service at no cost to students or their families.

Comcast’s recent announcement that they will expand their existing usage-based broadband pricing model to the Northeast has led to a number of misconceptions that are worth clarifying for consumers. It’s important to understand that the term “data caps” is a misnomer — there has never been nor will there be a hard limit on internet use set by providers. Comcast offers different kinds of plans for people with different internet needs.

For example, under Comcast’s traditional plan, customers receive up to 1.2 terabytes of data monthly for a fixed fee. This is an enormous amount of data — to put it in context, this is equivalent to approximately 500 hours of streaming HD content continuously, or nearly 21 days of Netflix running in the background nonstop.

Any customer approaching that 1.2 terabyte threshold will be notified multiple times. For the relatively few customers who do use that much data regularly — approximately 5% of users, even during the pandemic — the company offers unlimited plans at reduced prices. This is the same pricing model that Comcast has used in for several years outside of the northeast.

Others have used Comcast’s announcement to argue that lawmakers should use taxpayer dollars to build government-owned broadband networks, but this is not a consumer protection strategy. Across New England, many of these government systems have proven costly, inefficient, and disastrous for local budgets already strained by the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving taxpayers holding the bag.

For example, in nearby Groton, Conn., the city borrowed $27.5 million to build a government-owned network and incurred $11 million in losses. Eventually the city had to subsidize the operating expenses of the network at a cost of about $2.5 million a year before selling it for $550,000, passing $38 million in debt and losses on to the city’s taxpayers. Burlington, Vt. also experimented with creating a government-owned network. They quickly found themselves unable to service the debt for their project, which destroyed the city’s credit rating with six bond rating downgrades from 2010 to 2012. Again, taxpayers were left on the hook for millions of dollars in debt when the network was sold.

Municipalities are not well equipped to keep up with the ongoing maintenance and upgrade costs, the dynamic pace at which technology evolves and the complex technical nature of providing Internet to tens of thousands of people in a city or town.

Broadband infrastructure is not comparable to a water pipe that gets put into the ground and does not need to be touched for 20 years. Broadband providers like Comcast or Charter have to continuously update and invest in their networks so they remain resilient, secure from cyber threats and outpace the latest trends in technology. These companies make investments 18 to 24 months in advance of projected consumer trends and spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on these continuous updates. Customers benefit from this, too, seeing increased speeds and more stable networks.

The good news is that Massachusetts is already a nationwide leader in broadband connectivity with 97.9% of residents having access to high-speed broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). And thanks to public private partnerships formed through the Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s “Last Mile” program, every remaining unserved or partially unserved community has been set on a dedicated path to broadband connectivity.

Instead of rushing into costly and unreliable solutions in search of a problem, let’s build on what works for providing fast, reliable internet to consumers across Massachusetts.

Tim Wilkerson is the president and CEO of the New England Cable and Telecommunications Association (NECTA), a five-state regional trade association representing substantially all private cable broadband companies in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.

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