6 Responses to “Councilor Kelley’s thoughts on underground wires and the future of Cambridge’s internet”

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  1. Craig Kelley says:

    Someone said I could post his comments to my email, so I am doing that below.

    At 09:01 PM 3/3/2014, Craig wrote:

    No, I’m not looking for something to spend money on, but I am looking to make sure that the City, to include me, understands this issue better. 50 or so years ago, Detroit was something like the 4th biggest City in the US. Now it’s a town of ruins. If there is no need to upgrade our internet options, or if there is, I’d like to have a clearer understanding from experts in the field as to why that is or isn’t the case and what we might do about it, or not.

    In response to that, someone else wrote:

    I applauded, and I applaud you, for that. The Detroit analogy is not, however, I don’t think, entirely apt — Wall Street, or the City of London, or the NYC garment district, or Hollywood, might be better — places where face-to-face contact is worth whatever you have to pay for it.

    The Library issue is a bit more complicated, but I think we’ve glossed over the cost of having such a big main branch that requires pulling in staff from other branches to support it.

    WE NEED THE BIG MAIN BRANCH — IT’S BEING FULLY UTILIZED. Darn those kids! We build them a nice new library, and what do they do with it — they USE it! (Like Yogi Berra: I’m not buying my kid an encyclopedia; he can walk to school just like we did.) Main Library is fully utilized, in fact it is getting towards max-out. You should be pleased with that. Main Library is not “too big” — the utilization shows that, if anything, it’s too small! There’s no waste there — and where else can you point to in the City and say that with a straight face?

    The point is, the demand exists, and the need exists, and meeting that need is absolutely our best investment in a solid, prosperous, (and more egalitarian) city in 2030. We can reduce the load at Main Library two ways: we can starve them out, say by cutting hours, throwing the kids into the street, or we can increase the capacity of the system. Which do you think I prefer? Which do YOU prefer?

    Just to leave no question: I would prefer to see every branch open 12/7 and to always be able to walk in and find a seat and a computer. That might translate to only 80% utilization, but that 20% of margin, what someone might call “waste,” wouldn’t cover the cost of servicing the debt on, oh, just to pick one I know, replacing all the sidewalks on Mt Auburn St that were only fifteen years old — that happened a couple years ago. What do you think the utilization is on, say, the, what was it, $20M? $50M? Walden St bridge? Something like 2% of capacity….

    Hard numbers, Craig: the FY14 Library operating budget was $9M, of which $7M was salary/wage expense (FY14 Budget, p. IV-322). Say we boosted that labor number by one-seventh: that wouldn’t give me everything I wanted, but it would stop the rolling-blackout nonsense and help to spread the load: call it another $1M. Total tax levy was $316M; add $1M; that’s an increment of 0.2% if it were simply placed on everybody’s taxes as a surcharge (a stupid way to do it, but easy to figure). So if you paid $5K this year, and that nice Councillor Kelley got another million for the Library, next year you would pay ten bucks more — think it’s worth it? THREE CENTS A DAY. You lose twice that into the couch cushions and don’t bother to pick it out, Craig.

    And the return on that is an educated work force that’s better able to pick up the opportunities that our unique position in the global knowledge economy offers — does that sound like a good idea to you? Does that sound like a good thing for the City? Does it sound like good ROI? Increased tax revenues from higher real-estate values from a wealthier population which is earning more money because it’s better educated? Or, am I missing something?

    I myself would throw in another two cents a day and expand the computer facilities at the branches — the kids could be closer to home, there would be more evening utilization, hence, higher “efficiency,” and the load at Main would go down even more. Main could then devote more attention to higher-level activities like reference services, ILL, database-access development, outreach — but then, I’m a high roller, two cents a day is nothing to me.

    I give you a hard time, Craig, but you know it’s because I respect you — at least, I hope you know it.



    All emails to and from this email address are subject to the Public Records Law and may be made available to members of the public. Anything you do not want subject to that law should be sent to me at Craig@CraigKelley.org.

    From: Craig H. Appel [ mailto:acebros@gmail.com]
    Sent: Saturday, March 01, 2014 11:28 PM
    To: Kelley, Craig
    Subject: Re: Councilor Kelley’s notes on underground wires and the future of Cambridge’s internet


    are you looking for something to spend money on? I get that feeling…because this is IMO an imaginary problem.

    There are much better places to spend that money, or rather to invest it with much better returns to the people who live here and pay tax here, and I would start with the Library and very specifically the librarians. As of last year, at least, they were so broke that half of the Central staff on any given day was rotated in from a branch that was closed for that day in a sort of rolling blackout, to save money.

    That’s not clear, is it? One day a week each of the library branches would close, and that branch’s staff would go to Broadway, because they couldn’t afford to keep all the branches open all week. Of course the paving contractors are thriving and our bond rating is a thing of sublime and celestial beauty — I, for one, think that’s (a) totally fucking obscene, and (b) extremely short-sighted, because, the Library is a super-cost-effective investment in exactly the kind of enhanced economic opportunity I think you want to promote.

    Concrete is like crack — just ask the Japanese. It’s addictive to politicians, since the contractors can make essentially unlimited campaign contributions because they get the money right back from the gov in the contracts. And concrete has no, hmm, nutritive value: it’s a quick shot in the arm, a not-so-cheap high, but the multiplier is very very small, y’know, the economic returns to the community on the investment are in general (at this stage in our development) small, the stimulus wears off quickly and then you need yet another bridge to nowhere.

    Whereas, give a man a fish, or give a man a net. Go to the central library some after-school, Craig: it’s hoppin’. It’s full of kids, they are speaking 117 languages, they are doing their term papers on the Internet, they are deep in the encyclopedias — they are also by the way and as a rule extraordinarily serious and well-behaved young people. That may be because, in contradistinction to my generation, they understand that they’re in a very competitive, a nearly desperate situation — sink or swim, no more middle-muddling along — that’s what “growing income inequality” really means. The branch libraries need more computers, they need more staff, they need more space, and they need to be open seven days a week — in part to take the load off Broadway, because, it can be hard to find a place to sit down after 2:30.

    It will be a more of a challenge to whip up the plebs about the Knowledge Gap, but I think you could do it, and, as it happens, it is also the right thing to do.


    As for the poles and the wires and so on….The Pole and Conduit Commission is a fine old relic of the Progressive Era — ever been to a hearing? (I have.) They can (and they will if there’s a strange, i.e., public, face in the hearing room) jawbone NStar about this and that. They have some leverage, because NStar needs their permission to change certain things, and they can horse-trade for concessions that NStar is not legally bound to give. How much that happens in reality, and how much the P&CC just rubber-stamps what the utilities ask for, is a question so intensely tedious that, if you care, you should get some autistic person to find out for you — I won’t. It does seem as though they should, and should be made to, clean up their messes: swap the lines over and take down the dead poles — but again, this has all the sex appeal of a half-chewed bologna sandwich in the gutter.

  2. PeterDane says:

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  3. PeterDane says:

    I want to thank Councillor Kelley for raising the issue of burying utility wires because it is an interesting topic that goes naturally in a number of different directions as can be seen from comments already made. Others have commented on key issues. I’d like to add a simple set of comments on aesthetics but with an anecdotal comment first.

    Overhead wires do create some problems. I live in N. Cambridge on the second floor of a triple decker and 10 years ago a pole outside our building was hit by lighting which fried: three phones, a controller board in a washing machine, a computer and a very nice coffee grinder. It caused about a thousand dollars of damage, all tolled. Two years ago a transformer on the same pole failed spectacularly and burned for about an hour sending sparks and melted insulation for some considerable distance. You’d think I’d be an opponent of elevated utility lines. I’m not.

    If I thought for one minute that we’d do anything to take advantage of the lines being buried I guess I might change my mind but I do not. Consider this bit of empirical evidence. I live on Fairfield and can walk in a minute to Rindge and Mass Ave–two streets that have buried utility services. Is there any noticeable difference in appearance between my street, which has not just all of the usual lines but also a high voltage distribution line above the normal electric ones? Are property values or investments in properties higher on Rindge or Mass Ave because of buried lines? Do the streets look better because the utilities are out of sight?

    I honestly do not think that the answer to any of those questions is yes. In fact, I think that my tiny, crowded and busy little street looks better than the bigger streets because the proportions of buildings and human activities are greater in my environment than on the larger streets. If we were going to use the space currently occupied by the wires to good effect I’d consider the change. Simply undertaking the change, I think, would be a waste of money better spent in other areas. How much money might it cost to bury lines. I’d estimate the cost of doing so at about $10,000 per household which would get paid by someone.

    In the interest of fairness, I offer up two photos taken on March 3rd. Anyone is free to comment on whether Fairfield St. is dis-advantaged by having the utility wires.



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  4. jochakovsky says:

    It would be great if a new ISP like Google Fiber was willing use existing infrastructure to extend service to Cambridge, and it’s great to hear that the city is pre-emptively placing “shadow” conduits. Whatever the city can do to attract an all-fiber ISP like Google is really great, as fiber is definitely the best long-term solution. However, I disagree with the basic premise that a lack of fiber buildout is, by itself, holding us back from very-high-speed internet. For consumer internet, cable should not be dismissed as a technology of the past. The current technology used for cable internet, DOCSIS 3.0, is actually theoretically capable of delivering 1000 megabit download speeds, equalling what Google Fiber offers today. Comcast is actually already offering plans in Cambridge as fast as 300 megabits. While this sounds a lot slower, the reality is that today, most people would not be able to notice any increase in speed above 5 or 10 megabits, which is approximately what is required to stream high definition video.

    I think the most pressing short-term concern in Cambridge is a complete lack of competition, causing us to pay higher prices for internet access than our neighbors. Somerville and Boston do not have a Comcast monopoly like we do. Both cities also have RCN service, while Boston also offers additional alternatives such as NetBlazr. Some Boston suburbs even have FiOS service. Yet in Cambridge, the only practical option is Comcast. In Somerville and Boston, it is possible to purchase a 110 mbps plan for just $50/month, while an equivalent plan in Cambridge costs $115/month. Internet and phone access is also more expensive here than it is for our neighbors. I believe this is a direct result of a lack of competition in the Cambridge market.

    You mention that, when asked about starting a new internet utility in Cambridge, the city’s answer is “Yes, you can come. We’d just like you to do A, B and C.” What exactly is Cambridge demanding from potential competitors that make them avoid expanding into this market? Judging by the fact that most of the surrounding cities have a competitive market, it seems that Cambridge’s demands may be particularly onerous. Perhaps the city can ease up on their demands or do something to make it easier for the companies to meet these demands? While this might cost the city a bit of money, it could be a huge cost savings for city residents that have been paying monopoly rates to Comcast for years.

  5. jandev says:

    Correction: the hearing on the cell antennas is on 2/27 (7 pm at the Senior Center).

  6. jandev says:

    I would like to add that we need a policy on cell phone antennas on roofs in residential areas. It has just come to my attention that there’s a request for a variance at 286 Concord Ave (continued from 2 prior hearings) to install 12 cell antennas on a non-conforming triple decker near Walden St. The structure is already almost 8 feet taller than allowed and the owner and AT&T are proposing putting a “penthouse” structure on the roof to house these antennas. There’s a hearing on 2/29.

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