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The Impression of Progress on F-Street

Public Works successfully gave the impression of progress, without actually having to bother

Public Works successfully gave the impression of progress, without actually having to bother

As predicted, when Public Works Director Eric Johnston created the Broadband Advisory Group and filled it with members from big-telecom, their goal was to give the impression of progress, without providing any actual progress. 

An example of that happened recently when the Port tried to partner with the City of Bellingham to install fiber and conduit on F-Street. When Johnston suddenly halted conduit installation, I became suspicious. It turned out the Port had received federal funding to cover the installation costs of the fiber and conduit. So, Johnston and City Council member Michael Lilliquist used that as an excuse to refuse the Port a significant connection to the city’s existing public network.

In order to evaluate what’s really at stake here, let’s compare a few numbers—because messing with the numbers is how the COB protects big telecom.

In a glance at the map above this article, we can see that Bellingham’s 24-48 strands of fiber in the F-Street area, doesn’t even come close to Mount Vernon’s 144-strand neighborhood standard. So, we have inferior standards.

The cost of gigabit fiber in Hillsboro, OR is less than $60 a month, with installation costing well below $1,000 in most cases. In Anacortes, WA and Chataonooga, TN gigabit service is $70 a month. South Korea and Japan charge about $25, and Nordic countries cost around $50. So, our service costs more per month. 

I got two installation quotes from private providers just for backhaul with the responsibility of building a fiber network in my neighborhood still ultimately being placed on myself and my neighbors. Please note that I am not somewhere way out in the county; I am on top of existing COB fiber and close to other private resources. Installing Wholesail, the wholesale division of Ziply, would cost me $120,000, (and no, I didn’t not misplace that comma). Astound/WAVE quoted me $35,000 for installation then offered a “shared product” for $600 a month; true gigabit fiber service would be $900/month. Wholesail wanted $900 a month for gigabit, as did WAVE. So, private installation here is insanely expensive and then monthly rates are absurdly high.

So, what did the COB do when we pointed out the lack of 120 strands of fiber on F-Street when compared to the Mount Vernon standard and a need to upgrade to the Mount Vernon standard? Johnston simply ignored the numbers and referred to this lack of 120 strands of fiber compared to the minimum Mount Vernon standard as “significant" when it’s obviously not. He played with the words so he could refuse to upgrade our public network like he always has. Sure, it’s better than nothing, but it’s not close to the Mount Vernon Standard. Why? Because, as usual he lumps in unaffordable options from WAVE and Wholesail and pretends like they’re public resources. Then he pretends that no upgrade to the COB network is needed. He is also still using language like, “there may be some opportunities for leasing COB fiber” in his responses to me. Which, if you’ve known Eric as long as I have means that he will make it as hard as possible for anyone to use the existing public network and refer everyone to private interests with unaffordable assets instead. When I say anyone, I also mean the Port in this case too. Eric could allow the Port to make a significant connection by participating in an upgrade of the existing COB network, but he is keeping the fiber count low to make sure that they can’t. This is important because allowing the Port to make a significant connection to existing COB fiber would give us access to our existing public network and create healthy competition like Mount Vernon has. Healthy competition is something Johnston and Lilliquist have always worked against to protect big telecom. 

So, while federal money required the Port to fund the conduit, my question is, what stopped the COB or PUD from bringing their existing public fiber up to Mount Vernon’s standards? The city can certainly put some of our tax money towards public works projects and with the Port picking up the cost of most of the project the COBs responsibility would be next to nothing. The COB and PUD made the decision not to participate themselves, even though the city could have always made money leasing the existing network out to local net-neutral providers like PogoZone. 

The PUD’s response, through Commissioner Deshmane, was that he “supports the project.” Apparently, just not enough to suggest any actual improvements or provide any real physical resources. And remember, the PUD not only has a broadband manager, but some good expertise and equipment; all of which we pay for. They also are simply just not going to do anything useful.  

And last but not least, there’s the Port. Oddly, the port’s director, Rob Fix, responded to this issue on behalf of the Port, even though they have a very competent broadband manager in Gina Stark. About four years ago, she mapped out and recommended a county-wide public network. It was surprisingly efficient and well done. Unfortunately, the Port consistently ignores Gina’s expertise when special interests like Comcast and WAVE object. That’s when the Port’s director, Rob Fix, steps in to move things to favor big telecom: corporate welfare to special interests. 

The COB also intends to hire a broadband manager—who will report to Eric Johnston. Johnston will hire a manager sympathetic to special interests and will refuse to upgrade or use what existing network we have. And like the PUD General Manager, Johnston will keep the new broadband manager from doing anything useful. So, between the city, the PUD, and the Port, we have a tightly orchestrated smoke and mirrors show, conducted against the public interest, to keep big telecom happy. 

Our highest priority should be to set a proper Dig Once Policy. Such a policy would require the city to upgrade fiber and conduit every time they excavate, to at least the standards Mount Vernon enjoys. But just as it looked like the COB might actually make progress, Johnston and Lilliquist literally wrote a fake Conduit Ordinance to ensure that no real progress happened. A few weeks ago, the BAGs’ final report was presented to Bellingham City Council by WAVE executive Milissa Miller.

So, I will end with another prediction: We will see no real tech progress for our people until we replace establishment politicians from the major parties and get a strong mayor who will work for the people of Bellingham. That mayor will need to start out their term by firing Eric Johnston. 

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