Some online followers of Lowell politics have created a drinking game called “double poles.” Every time a city councilor at a city council meeting utters the words “double poles” (as in two telephone poles standing side-by-side) participants in the game take a drink of an adult beverage. It’s a joke, of course, but it is a reminder that the city does hold some control over our communications infrastructure. For that reason, it’s disappointing that for all the talk of “economic development” no one on the city council is championing municipal wifi – public, inexpensive, high speed internet access for city residents and businesses. I doubt any one of the nine current city councilors even imagines that to be a service the city might provide. But it is.
Were the city to provide high speed, affordable internet access as cities like Santa Monica, California and Chattanooga, Tennessee now do, it would be a tremendous boon to economic development while drastically improving the quality of life of all of Lowell’s citizens.
This is not the type of service you roll out overnight. It takes years of planning and the cost, initially at least, might be substantial. But shouldn’t we at least be investigating this now? There’s no harm in that and the potential pay-off down the road makes it well worth it.
There are some immediate obstacles. “Down the road” means the benefits wouldn’t be realized until after the next municipal election so there’s not much incentive for councilors to initiate this. Plus, Comcast and its competitors (there are a few left, aren’t there?) didn’t become the powerful companies they are without squadrons of highly paid, highly effective lobbyists protecting their interests in the halls of government, particularly at the state house, so there will be all kind of push back from there. Of more practical concern would be the fate of LTC (Lowell Telecommunications Corporation) and its associated municipal and educational cable TV operations: all are primarily funded by a surcharge we all pay on our monthly Comcast bills. A move away from a Comcast monopoly would require alternate funding for all aspects of municipal cable.
Establishing high speed, inexpensive municipal internet service for citizens and businesses would not be an easy task but the pay off for Lowell could be huge. More and more people are forsaking cable TV in favor of pure internet service. Land line telephones are also fading as a communications technology. Each month, Lowell residents writing out their monthly checks to Comcast for the bundle of cable TV/internet/telephone service observe as I do that “this is an awful lot of money for services I barely use.”
Our society and how we communicate is changing rapidly. Shouldn’t Lowell take advantage of those changes rather than react to them after the fact? Besides, as an economic development selling point, which is more powerful: High speed, inexpensive, municipally provided WIFI or free parking after 4 pm?