Topic: Government (353)

COB - Your Interests vs. Corporate Interests

No public fiber means we can’t compete with big telecom. EVER.

No public fiber means we can’t compete with big telecom. EVER.

The catalyst for this article took place at the 12/4/2023 Bellingham City Council meeting when several council members pushed to have conduit and fiber installed on a Telegraph Rd. project near large, existing, public fiber runs on Meridian St. The Council members pushing for this were Dan Hammill, Michael Lilliquist, and Lisa Anderson, (conduit-only in her case, which makes no sense as I’ll explain below). Here is a link to that meeting. I was asked to write a blow-by-blow analysis of this meeting, which I did, and my comments, with time stamps, are a matter of the public record as I sent my thoughts to the City Council.

Council members Skip Williams and Hollie Huthman were either unable or unwilling to make decisions. Maybe they still haven’t found the copy of “Fiber” by Susan Crawford that I donated to the public library, or any of the seven copies I’ve distributed to our elected officials over the years. Oddly, even though Hannah Stone has read “Fiber” and many other Crawford books, she flew her corporatist colors at that meeting and went to bat for big telecom. 

Council-member Lilliqust pointed out that this was at least the fourth time he could recall that they had missed the opportunity to take the logical step of installing conduit and fiber. Lilliquist even agreed with my article that the existing conduit ordinance Johnston had drummed up was virtually worthless.

While Johnston contradicted himself many times during that meeting while trying to protect special interests, one of the points we should highlight is that the city’s own Broadband Advisory Workgroup (BAG) admits the city should build a carrier class network that would require the installation of conduit and fiber. Since Telegraph Rd. and the intersections discussed here are close to existing public and private fiber on Meridian Street, the Telegraph Rd. project is a perfect opportunity to get started on expanding the public network. Johnston, however, insisted we delay this logical step that is obviously good for our community, until the BAG, filled almost entirely with big telecom members and sympathizers (as we explored here), came up with their own plan to expand the network. Again, even the BAG says we need to upgrade, and to do that you need conduit and fiber; Johnston was stalling to benefit big telecom. 

In the end, the City Council asked RAM Construction for a re-quote that included at least two, 2” diameter conduit, which is the standard Mount Vernon and Anacortes use on their public fiber networks. Mount Vernon and Anacortes also run 144 strands of single mode fiber in their conduit by default. It looked like things might be moving forward. 

But this article is about what happened after that meeting, when I checked on their “progress,” and the email exchange I had with the city attorney’s office a few days ago. 

Eric Johnston hand-selected his big telecom buddy and city attorney, Matt Stamps, to help protect the interests of big telecom. How do we know big-telecom is the way Matt Stamps rolls? Because he has publicly advocated for them in the past, especially Verizon. I’ve been at meetings where Matt has read, verbatim, Verizon wireless propaganda as an “official” COB document, with all the glaring technical issues, and disregard for the poorest among us, intact. Eric picked Matt because he knew they could work together, using our tax dollars, to protect special interests, as they always have. 

Eric and Matt did work together to kill even the simple re-quote to install conduit on this project—that hasn’t yet broken ground. RAM Construction could have easily done a re-quote. 

An email I received from COB Communications and Outreach Coordinator Torhil Ramsay explains.

Thank you for following up for an update about the possibility of fiber conduit being included in the Telegraph Road project. Public Works staff was advised by the City Attorney's Office and Finance Department that this work was outside of the scope of the project and therefore we are continuing forward with the project as originally scoped. Fiber conduit will continue to be evaluated for all projects in alignment with the City's planned 5-year comprehensive fiber plan.” 

Notice how they protect which attorney it is, and don’t name names? For starters, the COB has no real 5-year plan, like the Bellingham Schools don’t really have a Climate Action Plan. Remember, the COB has a virtually worthless conduit ordinance full of suggestions from the big telecom-filled BAG. Essentially, they’ve just put out a nice looking flyer with no real commitments. The COB and school district communications coordinators must know each other. 

Not satisfied with this answer, I e-mailed the only attorney at the COB who may have integrity, James Erb.

Hello James, as usual I am following up on an issue the COB/your office was not transparent about. Supposedly your office advised the COB not to get a re-quote including the installation of telecommunications conduit, and possibly fiber, on the Telegraph Rd. project mentioned in the December 4th council meeting. Since re-quotes are common, especially on projects that haven't started yet, and since there is a lot of existing COB fiber in that area, and since even the BAG recommended building a carrier class network, which requires conduit and public fiber, this makes little sense. So, I wonder which attorney made this decision? Was RAM Construction leaning on the COB not to re-quote or was it Public Works that tried to push this through without a re-quote? I'd like to try to get this information without the need for an expensive public records request, but the original reply I received from Torhil Ramsay was intentionally obscure. In the future you should strive for more transparency and use names. Transparency has always been a big issue at the COB.”

Erb responded, 

“Thank you for your email. I am not sure I understand your question. If you are simply asking whether an attorney in our office provided legal advice to the Public Works Department on this issue, the answer is yes. Senior Assistant City Attorney Matt Stamps provided legal advice to PW on this issue. If you are asking for more specific information about the legal advice that was provided by Mr. Stamps, that information is exempt from public disclosure as a privileged and confidential attorney client communication under RCW 5.60.060(2). Let me know if you have any other questions. Thanks again.”

Let’s break this down. Eric Johnston received legal advice from Matt Stamps that killed the chance for public network expansion, and we’re not allowed to know what they said to each other? Hell, we’re not even allowed to know who was in the meeting. Was RAM there, breathing fire, demanding that the project start on time? Probably not, since RAM would make more on the project if they installed conduit. Were Comcast, CenturyLink, Verizon, AT&T and WAVE there? Probably, but we’d have to sue our own city to find out who was at the meeting, let alone what was said.

 Keep in mind, the BAG had voting members from WAVE, and big telecom had a constant presence throughout this process (see my earlier articles). I think we can assume with high accuracy what their inclination was. But what was RAM’s take on this? As a company that claims to appreciate the work we give them, I want to ask them flat out, right here: Did you help big telecom and Eric Johnston stop the installation of conduit on this project? We will assume no response from you indicates an affirmative response to my assumptions. 

I remind everyone that the COB has, for decades, had a robust, city wide, publicly owned fiber-optic network that they sat on during the pandemic. And they continue to sit on it. I urge you to contact the COB and ask them why we are paying Johnston and Stamps to protect special interests. Ask them why there is no transparency. Ask Lisa Anderson why she suggested a conduit-only proposal.

Corporate welfare is why. The most expensive part of underground installations is excavation. Establishing a real Dig Once Policy would reduce the cost of installing fiber by about 90%. For comparison, our neighbor, Mount Vernon, installs 2” diameter schedule 40 PVC conduit with 144 strands of single mode fiber in it for about $120K in open trench, or $180K using horizontal boring. I’m sure there are exceptions, like when they installed in their more dense downtown area, but the differences are negligible.

However, while the Council agreed to get quotes for conduit on all future projects, Johnston often quotes close to a million dollars for about 1/3rd of a mile—as he did on the Roeder Ave. project a few years ago. Johnston intentionally keeps the cost high to protect WAVE/Astound and other big telecoms. Quoting per project is yet another way Johnston stalls the progress of public fiber-optics. As he always has. In fact, at this meeting he gave us a wild guess of at least $300,000 for this short run. So the quotes we get from Johnston aren’t just high, they aren’t even consistent. The truth is he’s just making it up as he goes. However, it should be noted that even if the cost were $1 million per mile, Bellingham is only about 29 square miles and you only run fiber on one side of the street. So no matter what way you look at it, this is not an expensive project in the long run and it pays for itself in many ways as we’ve explored in previous articles. In fact, in a May 16th, 1998 document the COB itself agreed that municipal networks were essential to our future. The quote from Mayor Asmundson and former IT Director Felix Anderson who stated that, “Municipal Telecommunication Networks provide the means for municipalities to leapfrog traditional technologies to a “network of the future” with virtually unlimited capacity for growth and expansion.”    

We’ve said excavation is the most expensive part in the order of expense for installing fiber, at over 90% of the total cost. The conduit is about 3% of the project cost, and the fiber about 1%. So why is Lisa Anderson pushing for conduit-only? Lisa claims it’s because Johnston always makes cost an issue and it will reduce the cost. But that’s ridiculous, the fiber actually costs almost nothing. A conduit-only argument makes no sense. 

So why push for conduit-only? Corporate welfare. If we install conduit-only, private companies like WAVE/Astound can fill it with their private fiber, helping them keep our costs 13.5 times higher every month for gigabit service than places with public networks like Anacortes, WA, Chattanooga, TN, or Hillsboro, OR. We are footing the bill for the most expensive part of the process so that WAVE/Astound can expand their unaffordable monopoly. If we have no public fiber in the conduit we can’t compete with them. EVER. We can’t serve our critical services, like police, fire, schools, and libraries with the critical services they will need down the road. 

We need conduit and public fiber installed as part of an actual Dig Once Policy. Just like we always have. 

About Jon Humphrey

Citizen Journalist • Bellingham • Member since May 23, 2017

Comments by Readers

Randy Petty

Mar 18, 2024

I just read that the FCC now considers 100 down, 25 up as the minimum for broadband.  How many in our county don’t yet have that ( I’m one that doesn’t)


Brian McNitt

Mar 18, 2024

@Jon Humphrey Thank you for the article. I would like to reshare on social media. Could you suggest actionable steps readers could take to expose one Eric Johnston (City of Bellingham Public Works Director) and one Matt Stamps (City of Bellingham, Assistant City Attorney Sr.) in their efforts to block public fiber and empower the City of Bellingham to make it happen?


Jon Humphrey

Mar 19, 2024

Thanks readers. I’ll respond to your questions/comments in order.
Randy, yes but even the “updated” FCC standard is a joke as the testing method they, and our state, use to determine speeds is intentionally inaccurate as I explore in several articles like these 2.
We use RRUL (Real-time Response Under Load). Only a load test can show you the real performance of equipment in general, just like with an engine, etc.
For more info on RRUL check out the Rationale section here:
1. I know, and have been assured by legal experts that have read this article, that not all parts of the meeting could have been exempt due to attorney client privilege. Yes, speech between the COB attorney and a private attorney maybe, but anything said by our public officials in other capacities is not. For example, if Matt Stamps said to Eric Johnston something like, “this is so and so representing RAM Construction, or Comcast, or whoever,” that would not be exempt since it was said between public officials. So I would demand to get any scrap of information from them that is not protected by writing to the mayor’s office first so they are aware of the issue. Otherwise the attorneys will simply try to hide it. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Failing that you could always submit a public records request and sift through the documents from the past several weeks. They like to do this to slow us down but it sometimes works. Demanding they fire the public works director and replace him with someone that beleives in transperancy would be good too. 
2. At the end of the day we need to implement a real Dig Once policy as outlined in the article below, you know before the Corporate Democrats tried to kill it to protect special interests. I would write to the mayor and city council about that too. Also, demand an RRUL testing study so we are basing our decisions on real data as I went over in my answer to Randy above. 
I should note that the Republicans were probably happy to work with the Corporate Democrats on killing anything that’s good for the other 95% of us. I should note that I was never an employee of TAGNW. I just worked with them on the document. They are the mouthpiece of big telecom, but I thought Michael Gan could change that. The Corporate Democrats got him fired eventually. IN fact, Erik, Michael and I wrote the document and the Democrats sent 2 babysitters, Andrew REdding and Jamie Douglass to make sure the interests of the corporations were being attended to. They contributed nothing significant to the document. They just creepily stared at the workers and piped up when big telecom was unhappy, etc.



Randy Petty

Apr 03, 2024

Just noticed this article today and it seems to speak directly to the  obstacles that communities put in place that hamper private investments in fiber.

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