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 Committee Report

Committee Report #1


In City Council July 30, 2012

Councillor Leland Cheung, Chair  
Councillor Marjorie C. Decker  
Councillor Minka vanBeuzekom  

The Cable TV, Telecommunications and Public Utilities Committee conducted a public meeting on June 12, 2012 beginning at 4:06 p.m. Sullivan Chamber.


            The purpose of the meeting was to discuss planning and outreach regarding the digital divide. 


            Present at the meeting were Councillor Leland Cheung, Chair, Councillor Minka vanBeuzekom, Ellen Semonoff, Assistant City Manager for Human Services, Mary Hart, Director, Linda Turner, Information Technology Department, Susan Flannery, Director of Libraries, Corey Pilz, Consumer Information Specialist, Emily Shumsky, Intern, Consumers' Council, Nancy Schlacter, City Manager's Office, Ginny Berkowitz, Media Arts Manager, Cambridge Public Schools, Teddy Chery, Mayor's Office, and Paula Crane, Administrative Assistant, City Clerk's Office. 

Also present were Nicole Belanger, Community Media and Technology Coordinator, CCTV, Tim Plenk, and James Williamson. 

Councillor Cheung asked for an update as to where the City is currently in regards to work being done to address the digital divide.

Ms. Semonoff stated that in November of 2006, in response to a Council Order requesting that the City help bridge the digital divide, the City Manager appointed a Digital Divide Committee which included members from City Council, School Committee, City agencies, the Housing Authority and community agencies. The Committee was charged with the task of finding ways to address barriers to internet access. After several months of work, the Committee recommended a pilot Digital Divide Project for providing low-cost technology and WIFI to units within the Cambridge Housing Authority's Newtowne Court, in conjunction with the City's WIFI pilot being led by the Information Technology Department.  She noted the Digital Divide Committee surveyed many projects that provide computers, training, technical support and Internet access to students and other households. After reviewing the pros and cons of these different models, the Committee reached consensus on several critical issues: First, the decision was made to provide desktop computers rather than laptops. Second the decision was made to provide free refurbished computers donated from the IT Department rather than to offer new computers at a reduced price to program participants. Third, the decision was made to incorporate work force development opportunities into the program by having the computers refurbished by Rindge School of Technical Arts' students who also provided the majority of the call center tech support and training for families. She noted that the City Manager was receptive to the concept and he went to the City Council to appropriate $50,000 for the project.  She stated that CCTV was designated as the project manger for the pilot program.  

Ms. Semonoff stated that it turned out to be a complicated process to ensure adequate access mainly due to signal penetration issues.  She noted that it was possible to provide some wireless access to residents but it was neither robust nor reliable.  There were a significant number of people who ended up with internet access; however, the pilot program heavily depended on people keeping equipment plugged into their units which posed a problem as many people no longer did this as the program progressed.  Councillor vanBeuzekom stated she believed many people were concerned of the cost of keeping the equipment plugged into their units.  Ms. Semonoff stated that the cost of doing such was virtually zero.  She stated that people did not keep their computers plugged in for many reasons, including needing to use outlets for other reasons.  Her belief was that it was not an issue of cost to the households.   

Nicole Belanger, CCTV, stated that she was involved with the Newtowne Court digital divide access process.  She noted that some work is still done to maintain the network to this day.  The infrastructure presented challenges in keeping the network accessible and the maintenance has been a challenge.  She noted that some people still have computers that they received when the pilot program began.  Ellen Semonoff stated that her evaluation is that it was a good effort to learn of the challenges.  She noted that the benefit of this program was the idea that even if the City had the money to replicate the project, the project as designed did not make sense.  She noted that the next phase was for the Cambridge Housing Authority to apply for significant grant funding.  These funds would be used for the expansion of broadband and WIFI access.  The Cambridge Housing Authority was not successful in receiving the large grant, but they did receive a grant which allowed them to set up computer labs within housing developments and continued support for instruction in those labs.  She noted that the City recently got involved with Comcast in effort to assist in rolling out their Internet Essentials program and was trying to focus on how to continue the work of the Digital Divide Committee in conjunction with the City's E-Gov Committee. 

Councillor vanBeuzekom inquired as to the lessons that were learned in the Newtowne Court pilot project.  She noted that she was paying close attention as the project unfolded.  She stated that she believed cost was an issue.  She stated that slow service did not enable people to feel the benefits of the program.  She stated that it is imperative to have entities totally on board.  It must be a program in which they are strongly invested.  She stated that the management of Newtowne Court consistently had to reset equipment.    

Councillor Cheung questioned if newer technology has come out.  Mary Hart stated that there is technology but it is very expensive.  She stated that full-strength routers are put in City Hall.  Councillor Cheung questioned if there was fiber or wireless used in Newtowne Court.  Mary Hart stated that the closest they could get was a couple of switches surrounding Newtowne Court.  Broadband was put at 119 Windsor Street which would send signals that splayed.  She stated that nothing was reliable.  Ellen Semonoff commented that one thing that did happen is that some of the people who received computers and used WIFI then subscribed to Comcast for their internet access.  Ms. Hart stated that Comcast gives libraries and schools a connection to broadband.  All schools and libraries have been given access.  Once broadband is within a building, it is relatively easy to gain internet access as additional wire can be installed throughout the building to expand signal strength and allow more users to access the network.

Ginny Berkowitz stated that Comcast, in a commitment to the Federal Communications Commission, introduced the Internet Essentials program which offers families with children who are eligible to receive free lunches under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) low-cost Internet service, affordable computers and digital literacy training. The cost for internet access is $9.95 per month plus applicable taxes.  She noted that Comcast recently expanded the program's eligibility to include students who are certified to receive reduced lunch.  She noted that as long as they have a student in the school, they can utilize this program through graduation.  Comcast also provides eligible families with a voucher for a $149.99 net book plus applicable taxes. The challenge is to reach families to inquire of their interest in participating.  The Superintendent sent out a mailing to all eligible families to make them aware of the program, and plan to do a similar mailing for the coming school year.  Ms. Berkowitz stated that the return has not been impressive but some families are following through.  Identification of families in need is a priority and she believes that creative outreach is essential.

Tim Plenk, Cambridge Public School parent, stated that Comcast was brought in to this project kicking and screaming.  He noted that many hours were spent meeting with Comcast but that it seemed to him that Comcast did not embrace the project.  He stated that it was difficult to get information from Comcast and they were often not prepared to furnish requested information.  He stated that the connection available is a low-speed connection which caused a myriad of problems. 

Mr. Plenk commented that Harvard and MIT have wireless campuses and it would be beneficial to gain knowledge from their expertise.  He noted that the Harvard Square Business Association has made Harvard Square wireless as well.  

James Williamson commented that he heard that Newtowne Court has had a lot of problems with internet access.

Ginny Berkowitz stated that parent involvement is a key component for educational concerns related to digital access.  She noted that access to parents who do not have internet access is imperative.  ICTS at the school department conducted a series of surveys targeted to staff, students and families.  This data will be collected within the next few weeks and will hopefully help identify the needs for such families. 

Mr. Williamson stated that many students have internet access via their mobile phones and questioned how much of the data will be based on that aspect.  Ginny Berkowitz stated that the data has not been received; however, the survey was explicit in asking participants to identify what types of devices were being used to access the internet.  Councillor Cheung questioned if the surveys were anonymous and commented that data attached to surveys may be a way to understand the scope of the issue.  Ms. Berkowitz stated that the surveys were anonymous.

Councillor vanBeuzekom turned the conversation to the library aspect.  Ms. Flannery stated the library has wireless internet access in all of its libraries.  She stated that this provides access to people who have their own computers.  She noted that many people use the library as their office and that they may not be paying for internet service in their homes.  She stated that this is difficult to know without questioning people.  She commented that the bigger piece is that in the course of a year, the library exceeds 200,000 hours of internet access.  She noted that training is provided in multiple ways.  She stated that there is training that is catered toward the lower end of spectrum such as basic computer usage and knowledge.   The Central Square branch provides formal classes in how to use computer and basic keyboard skills.  She stated that a unique factor in the literacy project pairing up one student with one tutor and that individual instruction is valuable.  Ms. Flannery stated that it is her observation that it is heavily skewed toward the immigrant population and that the immigrant population is taking advantage of this program. 

Corey Pilz stated that the Digital Access Committee is also focused on gathering the resources that are currently available in the city and conveying such to the public.  CCTV recently conducted a citywide survey of computer labs-both public and private-that are open to the general public.  Using this information, he stated that he is currently creating a master list of valuable information such as hours of operation, types of computers, types of classes and support, etc.  He noted that once the list is completed, members of the Digital Access Committee will work with city agencies to target the necessary audience to get this information dispersed.  Councillor van Beuzekom questioned when this information would be available.  Mr. Pilz stated that the goal is by the end of the summer.

Susan Flannery stated that the Adult Literacy Program is a program to help people learn English.  She believes that some language training has been done but specifics cannot be given without research.  If someone needs help with translation, staff is made available and she noted that sometimes volunteers will also be asked to help in this respect.

Mr. Williamson stated that he depends on the library for computer access.  He stated that when he goes into the basement to use the computer lab, the energy is quite impressive.  Two things that come to mind is the issue in managing the social relations that take place in these spaces and the timing as to when people can log on.  He stated that it is a treat to be able to get ten free pages of black and white printouts.  He noted that initially, there were color printers and color printing turned out to be quite expensive.  He questioned if anyone had researched the possibility of allowing color printing as a special side arrangement.  Ms. Flannery responded that in all libraries, interactions with patrons can be challenging.  She stated that library staff does try to manage that as best as possible.  One hour of computer access is given when a person logs on.  She noted that because there is more space and computers at the Main Library, a second hour is allotted if no one is waiting.  She stated that regarding the printing, she does not get involved in day- to- day decisions but stated that it is the policy of the library that if an accommodation can be made to give patron something they need, staff will do that.  She noted that the cost of toner cartridges is quite expensive but that she will investigate official policy of color printing. 

Councillor Chueng focused on next steps.  He commented that training and providing services through the municipality seem good but the question is about access to the internet.  He stated that it seems as if more information relating to the impediments to signing up for the service, the nature of the digital divide and how to address this issue is needed. 

Ms. Hart stated that the city does know how Harvard and MIT run their networks.  She stated that they own their network on campus and every building is wired.  She noted that it is much more reliable regarding service.  She stated that they have control over the placement of the technology.  MIT has given equipment to the city for free and has been working with the city for ten years.  Ms. Hart stated that cost is a large factor.  She stated that the Information Technology Department does try to make service more robust every year.  She stated that MIT and Harvard have offered some help to the city and there have been a couple of pilot programs but that they didn't solve the problem.  She stated that it is important to have ownership. 

Nancy Schlacter stated that the Department of Commerce conducted a Webinar to discuss problems arising out of the Internet Essentials program.  She commented that the problems were identical around the country.  She noted that signing up was not as straightforward as one would think, the training piece was limited to certain groups, and that programs did not pass muster.  She noted that the Webinar mirrored what conversations are taking place currently.  She stated that corporate response is a large part of this.  Councillor vanBeuzekom stated she remembered something that Boston was doing to try to have real ownership, essentially not deal with Comcast and own broadband within the city.  Ms. Hart responded that Boston attempted to do the same thing and because they did not own their network, they were not successful.  Ms. Hart commented that every municipality is struggling with the same challenges.  An important point to make is that as a city we continue to try.

Ellen Semonoff stated that Comcast is worth continuing to pay attention to because it is worth people having internet access.  She stated that this is a long-term project.  She stated that the plan is to urge people whose children are eligible for free-reduced to participate. 

Corey Pilz provided background on the application progress and some of the difficulties people are experiencing, as he believed this is one of the biggest problems with the program. He stated that you have to first contact a special Comcast hotline to request an application, fill out app, furnish documentation, and mail back.  Comcast recently added an option to fax the application back. Comcast reviews the application and either approves or denies it based on what has been completed. Incomplete applications are automatically denied, and Comcast attempts to follow-up with such families to issue new applications, but it is unclear how this process works.  He noted that another issue with Comcast is that if you have a bad debt to Comcast, did not return equipment, or have received Comcast service within the previous 90 days you are automatically not eligible for the program.  He noted within Massachusetts, there are currently only 1,000-1,999 active participants according to numbers released by Comcast. He stated that Comcast has been unable to provide the city with the exact number of participants.   

Ms. Berkowitz stated that the family liaisons at the high school are a group that should be involved in this effort.   

Tim Plenk suggested that the goal for the next meeting should be to prepare next steps of what the committee will be doing.   

Councillor Cheung stated that the next meeting will be focused on next steps.  He commented that focus groups add texture to the data that will be received.  He noted that this is a challenging issue and he is pleased to know that the City of Cambridge is continuing to address this issue. 

Councillor Cheung stated that the technology needs to catch up with the people and that basic training is a key component to the accessibility piece.

Nicole Belanger noted that a recurring theme that she hears is from people who have non-functioning computers and the high cost of fixing these computers.  She commented that this is something that the committee could address.    

Councillor Cheung thanked all attendees for their participation. 

The meeting adjourned at 5:20 p.m.

For the Committee,

Councillor Leland Cheung, Chair
Cable TV, Telecommunications and Public Utilities Committee


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