Digital Divide: Council Differs on Opinions For Expanding Online Coverage

The Everett City Council met for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in full force last March, and technology was front and center with several struggling to adapt to the online format, and a contentious back-and-forth that emerged over 5G technology installations by Verizon.

The Council had not met as other bodies had, including the School Committee, due to the fact that no immediate expenditures had to be paid or approved by the Council. However that resulted in an agenda with 45 items on it, and a meeting that stretched into the next day, finally finishing at around 12:30 a.m. on Tuesday after having started at 7 p.m. on Monday.

To say that the meeting started clunky would be an understatement, and while other Boards in the city have struggled at first – some of the councillors in particular struggled with being able to grasp the online meeting format.

Councilor John Hanlon called in, but seemingly had the wrong number and didn’t appear until more than an hour into the meeting.

Councilors left their microphones on frequently, resulting in some embarrassing quips on mic, and there was the blaring television set that permeated almost every roll call vote as one unidentified councilor tuned into a television show while the meeting took place.

“What is going on with people?” said a frustrated Council President Rosa DiFlorio – who navigated the new format rather well later in the meeting with City Clerk Sergio Cornelio after the initial bumps.

“Shut off the TV or the radio and please focus on the meeting,” said Councilor Fred Capone.

“Whoever has their TV on or radio on, shut it off or leave the meeting,” said DiFlorio.

The guilty party, however, never shut off the TV, but people seemed to get used to it as time went on.

The real commentary on the proceedings came in the ‘Chat’ window on Facebook where residents watching the meeting pantomimed councilors who couldn’t figure things out.

“I like the one who asked what color the mute button is when it’s on,” said one resident.

“Motion to train councilors on how to use Zoom!” remarked on resident.

“Second that,” said another.

Needless to say, many on the Council clearly had experience with the technology and were ready to adapt to it while others were hesitant and not adept at getting it to work for them. That was a perfect segue into the first issue of the night – which happened to be about expanding Internet broadband networks in Everett via Verizon.

The 90-minute discussion separated the tech-savvy from the novices.

Verizon representatives had been before the Council on several occasions – as they have been in many other communities – to get new 5G antennae approved for locations around the city so as to provide better access to their customers. Such a mundane request in normal times had taken on a whole new level of importance as so many adults are now working from home, and even more children are at home trying to do online remote learning plans. The glut in usage has revealed a stark difference in places like Everett and other Gateway Cities where broadband access has been proven to be less than stellar and also not as available as once thought.

“As we move from an age of synchronous to asynchronous education, ChromeBooks and Internet bandwidth will be as necessary for students as a pencil and paper,” said School Committeeman Frank Parker. “No longer will a student with access to a home computer have an advantage over a student that doesn’t have access. To do all this, we need more bandwidth in Everett as Verizon is asking for.”

Councilor Wayne Matewsky jumped out ahead of the discussion and said he planned to vote against the petition by Verizon and said he was troubled by the fact that they will likely be asking for as many as 100 more over the next year as they build out the new 5G network.

“We have to be careful here,” he said, noting that he wants antenna on top of commercial buildings. “I’m not depriving children of technology in any way, but I’m not going to vote for any more of these pole locations. We have to take a stand at some point.”

Said Hanlon, “I won’t be voting for it and I hope my colleagues don’t.”

Dr. Eric Swanson appeared on behalf of Verizon from Pittsburgh as an expert on low frequency radiation. He said the levels emitted from the new antenna are much lower than the older ones, and 30,000 times below any limit that could harm a person.

“There is no concrete evidence of any danger to or ailments caused by any low frequency radiation,” he said. “None exists at all.”

Councilor Jimmy Tri Le said technology such as this needs to be expanded throughout the City as it makes Everett a more desirable city and one where students can be more successful.

“We’re living in the information age,” he said. “We need to progress like any other city. We need to put our children first…Everyone is working at home now. Children are being educated at home. People need all the bandwidth they can get…If there is no evidence of ailments, we should vote for all these items.”

Councilor Hanlon was disappointed Dr. Swanson was from Pittsburgh, and he said he would like to have an expert from Everett if possible, or Boston if not possible.

“I wish we had a professor from Everett, but we don’t,” he said. “It’s nice they bring someone they want, but we want someone we know.”

The attorney for Verizon said they have done everything the City has asked, and the licenses for the new antennae have been held up for months now.

“The science he talked about is the same in Everett as it is in other places,” he said. “You passed a set of aesthetic standards and we followed those standards. Respectfully, we agreed to give you some extra time, but I don’t see the reason for extending all of these since they’ve been before you several months and we have waited quite a long time.”

In the end, the Council continued two of the licenses, and approved three of them on votes of 9-2 each – with Matewsky and Hanlon voting against them.

•Paid Versus Unpaid Boards

Councilor Gerly Adrien brought about a piece on the calendar that called for all boards and commissions in the City – even those that have historically been volunteer, unpaid positions – to be paid. She said it was an outrage that members of the Zoning Board and Planning Board were paid a stipend, and others like the Historical Commission and Cultural Council were unpaid volunteers. She added that most on the unpaid Boards were women and minorities.

The matter was approved by a vote of 10-0 to send to the administration for further action.

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