WORCESTER — A “network fiber break” that knocked out the internet for a good chunk of the city Monday has leaders refocused on improving local broadband connectivity and the option of municipal broadband, saying that the future depends on fast, reliable internet.
“I think the pandemic has shined a spotlight on inequalities and one of those inequalities is the digital divide,” District 5 City Councilor Matt Wally, chair of the city’s Urban Technologies, Innovation & Environment Committee, said Tuesday. “The internet certainly isn’t a leisure activity: it affects our health through telemedicine, our economic development, our learning, etc. That’s why I was pretty frustrated (Monday) and a lot of frustration also comes from my constituents.”
A spokesperson for Charter-Spectrum — which provides service for more than 99% of the city’s internet users, according to a July 2020 report by the Worcester Regional Research Bureau — said in an email Tuesday that a network fiber break knocked out internet, video and voice services in the areas of Holden Street and Shore Drive in Worcester in the late morning Monday.
The break occurred following some preparatory work for a local Massachusetts Department of Transportation project, the spokesperson said, and the outage lasted until early evening. The company re-spliced more than 430 pieces of fiber to fix the outage and a team was onsite throughout, the spokesperson said. They referred questions regarding credit to the company’s customer service team.
The spokesperson declined to issue a statement for customers impacted by the break and declined to answer if there was anything that the company could do or is doing to prevent an outage from happening again in the future.
Residents first received a text notification from Charter-Spectrum at 9:53 a.m. concerning an outage that crews expected to be resolved by noon. A half-hour later another text message said restoration work was “taking longer than expected,” and a 3:28 p.m. notification said service was estimated to be restored by 6 p.m.
The outage demonstrated the extent to which businesses, education institutions and others are dependent on the internet.
“There was not much we could do, unfortunately, these days everything runs on computers,” said Tim MacDonald, owner of Worcester Fitness. “We couldn’t sell anything, unless with cash, all our scheduling is by computer. … We were walking around crippled but there was nothing we could do.”
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healey concurred.
“This experience highlights how essential internet service is to our daily lives, especially during this time of remote learning and working,” Chloe Gotsis, spokeswoman for Healey, said in a statement. “We expect internet providers to identify issues before service is impacted, and to resolve outages quickly.”
The outage also demonstrated the extent to which residents are dependent on Charter – Spectrum.
“Residents don’t have a choice, they’re stuck with Spectrum,” Wally said. “But we’ve got to make sure that everyone has access to fast, reliable internet access.”
Paul Matthews, executive director of the Research Bureau, agreed.
“(Monday’s) outage illustrated the dependence of those in the city who have internet access dependent upon Charter-Spectrum and the lack of alternatives,” Matthews said.
But it’s not as if the problem of relying on a single internet service provider was unforeseen.
“We’ve been trying to push people along on this issue,” Alex Guardiola, director of Government Affairs and Public Policy for the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview Tuesday. He and chamber President and CEO Timothy Murray cited two chamber reports within the past five years that have examined the city’s suitability for enhanced internet access.
“The substance of the reports is we’ve got to do as much as we can to leverage and push these companies to invest in Worcester, and I think we can be doing more,” Murray said. “This situation, the whole COVID-19 situation, has underscored an awareness of this.”
The Research Bureau is also beating the drum.
In its July 7 report “Broadening Broadband: Considering Municipal Ownership as a Solution to Worcester’s Internet Challenges,” The Research Bureau posited that municipal broadband internet service would provide better internet access to Worcester residents — 33% of whom lack access to broadband and 18% of whom lack internet access of any kind, the report found — and could lower prices and increase connection speeds by ending Charter-Spectrum’s monopoly as the only wired broadband provider in the city. The bureau also noted that such a municipally run service, which the report said was increasingly deemed “essential,” could lead to more equity and economic development.
The report made four major recommendations: to encourage Charter-Spectrum to expand broadband services; to investigate the cost of all options for municipal broadband — which could range from a public/private partnership to a municipally run system similar to a municipal light company; to examine plans in process in other communities investigating or using municipal broadband; and to work with congressional and state delegations to encourage resources to help address the situation.
“The city has made a real effort here and continues to make a real effort … to continue to explore any and all means addressing this going forward,” Matthews said. “This is going to be an ongoing issue for the foreseeable future, not just for the pandemic; but it’s really illustrating the importance of the internet to our future.”
Wally said he is eager to address the issue of internet availability and a potential municipal broadband network in his urban technology committee. But he raised several questions that still need to be answered before residents can download on a new network.
“What is the feasibility, what is the cost, and what can we do as a city to move down this road,” Wally said. “That’s our role: to decide if this is something we want to do. That’s our role: to get the answers to all the questions once we know what the questions are.”