While debates about in-person schooling rage and doctor visits go virtual, Outer Cape towns are negotiating the next decade of internet coverage in the area. Contracts between the individual towns and Comcast, the Cape’s main source of broadband internet connection, are set to expire this winter.
Due to the high fixed costs of cable internet infrastructure, Comcast has a natural monopoly on high-speed internet on the Cape. “Comcast is really the only game in town as far as lines and cables go,” Mia Baumgarten, chair of the Wellfleet Cable Advisory Committee, told the Independent.
AT&T does not provide internet in Massachusetts because other companies own the cable networks necessary to do so, said Karen Twomey, the regional P.R. manager for AT&T and DirecTV.
“Another company could come and run cables alongside Comcast’s, but is it profitable for them to do that if 90 percent of residents are on Comcast?” said Baumgarten. “It’s a monopoly.”
Comcast is a monopoly, though, that many Cape residents can’t buy into. Many areas, especially in sparsely populated parts of the Outer Cape, have no cable service, and thus no broadband — and the company isn’t required to provide it.
Former state Sen. Dan Wolf, founder and CEO of Cape Air, does not have access to broadband at his Harwich home. “There should be an obligation to deliver service even to places where it isn’t profitable,” he said. “If Comcast can’t do it, they should set up a reserve fund to pay OpenCape to do it.”
OpenCape is a nonprofit headquartered in Barnstable that currently provides fiber optic internet service to municipalities and some businesses, with plans to one day serve private residences.
“The only internet service I have at my home is an old-fashioned DSL over an old-fashioned phone line,” said Wolf. “My cell phone for work is T-Mobile, and very often I just stream off of my T-Mobile because the DSL is so bad. I can do email from home, but a lot of what we’re doing now is telemeetings, and it’s just too unreliable.”
The Cape’s incomplete broadband coverage has prevented psychologist Edouard Fontenot and his husband from moving to Truro full time. According to Fontenot, who goes to friends’ houses to get work done, Comcast salespeople have said several times that they serve his area, only to look his address up and take it back.
These are not isolated incidents. “I would say we have at least 30 homes that can’t get Comcast in Eastham,” said Town Administrator Jaqueline Beebe. “Some of those people have put up satellite dishes.”
Satellite internet is available on the Cape through companies like Viasat and HughesNet. Though satellite is more widely available than cable or fiber in hard-to-reach locations, its speeds are generally much slower.
In the past, a point of contention in towns’ negotiations with Comcast has been the number of homes per mile required for the company to provide service. Comcast’s standard to determine if providing service is financially viable varies. It is 25 houses per mile in Truro, Wellfleet, and Eastham, and 30 in Provincetown, according to past contracts.
James Paul Ludwig, a media consultant for Brewster, Truro, and Yarmouth who was involved in the last round of negotiations in 2010, said Outer Cape towns don’t have enough business to strike a bargain with Comcast. “Towns are always trying to negotiate that aspect of it. I’ve never thought it would work.”
“Suddenly, what was a mere annoyance has become really critical for us,” Fontenot said. “As a health-care provider, it’s extremely discouraging and frustrating not to be able to transition more seamlessly into telehealth. Without broadband, it’s not doable. This is the thing that’s going to strangle the Cape from being a viable place to live after the pandemic.”
It’s a pre-existing problem, Fontenot added, but the pandemic is “really shining a light on the way that people are not being served. In exchange for the capacity to be a monopoly, the trade-off should be that they be required to serve all areas.”
Underserved, Not Unserved
“The state of broadband on Cape Cod is uneven,” said state Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro. “We have antiquated service via a provider that has a monopoly on service. But we also have the potential through the OpenCape network.”
OpenCape, founded in 2006, maintains a fiber “backbone” along Route 6 all the way to Provincetown. Its broadband has a higher bandwidth than the cable internet offered by Comcast, according to CEO Steven Johnston.
OpenCape serves municipal buildings and a few businesses, including Wolf’s Cape Air. Aside from a residential experiment launched this year, however, Cape residents cannot link their homes to the fiber network. If the so-called last miles of fiber service were constructed throughout the Cape, Comcast with its spotty service would need to compete.
Despite the hefty sum required to expand fiber access — $70,000 per mile, according to a 2019 Independent article — Barnstable County Administrator Jack Yunits remains hopeful. “We’d do anything we could to get broadband access going throughout the Cape,” he said. Yunits said the funds would be difficult to acquire through grants, “But I think we could do it in a revolving loan fund.”
Most state funding for broadband improvements goes through the Mass. Broadband Institute (MBI). While Comcast’s hit-or-miss service is the only high-speed internet option on the Cape, MBI’s priorities are the 45 completely unserved towns in central and western Massachusetts.
Marty Newell at the Center for Rural Strategies said that such funding difficulties are common in partially served areas.
“A company can provide internet to one house in a county or census block and then declare that county served,” Newell said. “That means that potential competitors are locked out of a number of the grants and low-interest loans that Congress is so pleased about making available for rural America. Preference is given to unserved areas.”
With the Outer Cape being underserved, state funding is not directed here. “I’m hoping that the pandemic puts pressure on cable companies to provide broadband access, the way we think of water or electricity as a human right,” said Mia Baumgarten. “I have my fingers crossed, but I can’t say I’m hopeful.”
Olivia Weeks’s summer fellowship with the Independent is supported by the Harvard Alumni Association and the Harvard Club of Cape Cod. Carolyn Komatsoulis contributed reporting for this article from Boston.