Municipal WIFI for Lowell

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?

8 Responses to Municipal WIFI for Lowell

  1. Tobes says:

    Does the FCC’s inability to enforce net neutrality make breaking away from the grips of Comcast seemingly impossible? It seems they’re now using the side door to our wallets, regardless of where we’re getting out wifi. (See Netflix)

  2. DickH says:

    At the same time the FCC permitted the Comcast premium pathway for Netflix, the FCC also vowed to loosen the monopolies held by cable companies on municipalities. Those are mostly imposed by state government.

    One point about Comcast in Lowell: Comcast doesn’t have a monopoly. The city could allow in another provider such as Verizon (assuming Verizon wanted in which I don’t think it does). HOWEVER, if that happens, I think Comcast could then pull the plug on all the funding for LTC and the municipal channel so perhaps Comcast has a de facto monopoly

  3. Jessica Wilson says:

    Just thought I should shed a little light on this topic, having been involved in a few conversations at the level of implementation of wifi in Lowell.

    First of all, I did want to reiterate that one of the hidden benefits of cable TV is public access. Lowell’s LTC (where I work) LET22 (at the high school) and even meeting coverage at GLTHS all fall under that heading.

    Second, Comcast has a monopoly not because the City or Comcast haven’t allowed competition. In fact, I think the City may have pursued other providers in years past, but they did not bite. Lowell, being the birthplace of the phone system, has a very old fiber network, and so in many areas of the City, augmenting/changing/upgrading that network would be so costly, it’s prohibitive for a new company to come in. Verizon has since announced they are not extending their Fios network anymore, so for that company at least, the question is moot.

    There is a provision in our previous contracts with Comcast that if another cable company comes in, there is some funding that is lost (mainly capital funding that helps all of the entities providing local cable upgrade our equipment) but by no means would all funding to LTC be cut. The law which provides funding for LTC and other public access stations is a federal law that is played out at the local level. Each cable company would be responsible for providing some funding for public access (in communities like Newton, Stoneham, Haverhill and more there are 2 or 3 cable providers an all of them provide funding to the public access organizations there).

    Now, on to wifi; LTC does provide free wifi in a few key areas in the City. Including at LTC, which is located downtown, at 246 Market St., near the National Park Visitor’s center. Anyone who would like to be a member of LTC can come in and use our wifi in our gallery, cafeteria, or conference area when we are open.

    We collaborated with the City and other local nonprofits to provide wifi in community centers at the Coalition for a Better Acre and the YWCA a few years ago, and we still provide equipment and tech support for those.

    We actually spoke with the economic development office of Lowell a few years ago about a proposal to bring wifi to a few outdoor locations and some community centers in Lowell. We estimated that outfitting an outdoor space with wifi (a single, defined space, like a park, or a block) would cost $2-6K per year, and an indoor space, depending on size, would cost $2-10K per year. Plus addition of a FT person to install and maintain all of the equipment, as well as provide education to the community. (This was a few years ago, so prices may vary).

    We at LTC did a fair amount of research on this with communities who had done wifi installs predominately to benefit low-income communities around Boston.

    There are a few obstacles to wifi in Lowell that I am aware of. The first is, there’s a lot of brick in downtown, and wifi signal can’t travel through brick. So there would need to be more nodes here than in wide open/brickless spaces. And that would cost more money.

    The second is that if we were to implement wifi it would have to “not canabalize” current services provided by our cable provider. So it would have to be in conjunction with our cable provider.

    That being said, it’s not impossible, but it would certainly be a large amount of money to install and maintain wifi throughout the City. And I’m not sure that paying for wifi via tax dollars would be cheaper than having Internet in your home (for low income families with children, Comcast provides discounted internet service. See or, simply paying $35 per year to be a member of LTC and coming by to use our wifi!

  4. Joe says:

    I love the idea of free wifi. There have been many attempts to revitalize the acre throughout the years but nothing seems to work out the way we invision it. I think college students and young professionals are the key to permanently revitalizing the acre and a free wifi network would be a huge draw.

  5. Gail says:

    There are two monopolies for unlimited internet access. Verizon has a monopoly on DSL customers, such as me. I can’t get AT&T U-verse; Verizon is the DSL provider in this area. High speed internet is limited to Comcast/Xfinity. There is satellite internet, but similar to mobile broadband, or a smart phone program, your plan is for a certain amount per month. You probably wouldn’t be watching Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu. Because bundling is often a cheaper route to go, often one’s TV provider is their internet and Land Line provider. Although a lot of us have ditched our land line and sorry LTC, I spent $40 for an antenna the size of a piece of paper and am very happy with my system and not dealing with Comcast.

  6. Chris says:

    There could be a very easy first step — pass a city ordinance that any time a city street is worked on (for example: water/sewer/gas pipe work or resurfacing) install communications conduit.

    Typically one of the largest costs of public wifi is running the fiber between the hotspots; and the largest cost of running the fiber is leasing a spot on the poles or digging up the streets.

    Conduit is very inexpensive and once there is enough of it then the city can either lease it to a company that wants to bring broadband competition into the city or do it itself — snake the fiber through the conduit to wifi hotspots.

    The nice aspect of this first step is that it is inexpensive, leaves many options open and does not preclude any other option. For example, if the city does decide it wants to do municipal wifi, the pathway to run the fiber in in-place in many places already.

  7. Gail says:

    Good idea, Chris.
    As far as monopolies go, according to The Motley Fool, Google has gotten into the ISP business. As a result AT&T has stepped up its fiber optic lines in the markets that Google Fiber is entering.

  8. Chris says:

    I was reading up on Lowell’s sewer system — this looks like it might be more feasible then I previously thought.

    2/3 of the city has a combined sewer and storm drain system and the city has been working for the last decade to separate the two to mitigate sewage overflow into the Merrimack during storms.

    We could potentially “kill two birds with one stone” — install communication conduit in conjunction with the sewer work.

    FWIW, it also appears that many existing stormwater drains are massive (60″) and could potentially accommodate a 3″ communications conduit.

    Lastly check this out:

    The MassBroadband 123 backbone (the state-sponsored Internet uplink) runs right up rte 3 and transitions to 495 roughly at the Crosspoint Towers.

    We could have a world-class public wifi relatively cheaply by smartly connecting the dots on what is already there along with visionary planning on future sewer and roadway work!

    Who would like to take the lead on sponsoring the political side? Does anyone know someone in the LWRU that might be interested in exploring this? I work in telecom so I can help on the technical side. My email is cgleba at gmail dot com if there are questions.

    I can do a quick “straw-man” proposal to get public interest and potentially do an in-depth study if the city really wants to explore this. I know I do.