I recently received the Speedtest.net data on a part of the Bellingham school network, pictured above. You should note up front that the schools block all independent testing of their networks and that this test was not independent. It was given to me by Bellingham Public Schools Executive Director of Educational Technology Kurt Gazow after months of negotiating for more transparency. It only represents the staff side of the network, as he is stonewalling on testing from the guest side that the community might actually use. The staff and guest networks are given different amounts of bandwidth to use. The guest side is given much less bandwidth, so Kurt ignored the guest network and provided me with a “best foot forward” result from the staff side instead; as if only the staff side of the network matters. What about school parents and visitors that use the guest network? I guess they just have to be virtually offline while visiting a Bellingham Public Schools (BPS) location.
We know that Speedtest.net gives very high, false positives, so we should expect that under load, these results are actually anywhere from 1/2 to 1/4 of their stated speed. Still, let’s pretend these results (seen on the chart above) are accurate, (but they’re not). Even if the school system achieved the speeds listed, they are grossly inadequate for the purposes of the district. The schools should be on a minimum of Gigabit connections, as Nielsen’s law of Internet Bandwidth shows us that users increase their bandwidth needs by 50% every year. Because Bellingham schools have state fiber mixed with city fiber, Gigabit is a very achievable goal and should have happened by now.
On top of all of this, the State Broadband Office is offering grants for connectivity! The truth is that Kurt just doesn’t feel like doing it, he didn’t feel like it before the pandemic and he still doesn’t. So he’s obfuscating as much as possible, just like Public Works Director Eric Johnston. We can do better than this at COB and BPS when it comes to tech. In fact, we already have many of the resources in place in the form of the existing network that the COB is still blocking Mount Vernon style Open Access to. Public Works and the upper echelon at the schools simply don’t feel like using the existing network to help out the citizens that paid for it, even during a pandemic. So the most frustrating part of all of this is that the problem isn’t a lack of fiber, funding or technology, it’s a lack of accountability and expectations of our upper echelon employees at the COB and in our schools.
The City of Bellingham (COB), especially Eric Johnston, have been intentionally difficult when it comes to fiber, but the fact remains, their speeds simply won’t cut it. The school’s test data shows 158 Mbits down and 273 Mbits up. There is a low ping, which is great, but that is expected with fiber. In the modern age, with Zoom and an adequate buffer, each user should have access to at least 10 Mbits symmetrical, available per user at all times. This means if 15 teachers and 15 students, much less parents using facilities like at the Bellingham Family Partnership Program (BFPP) do while waiting (we’ll estimate another 10 here), the schools would need a minimum of 400 Mbits symmetrical and should be planning for Gigbit ASAP. But we have assumed only 15 teachers and 15 students, so during “normal” times the numbers of users would be much higher. (I put normal in quotes here since, like the flu, coronavirus will be with us forever and we’ll need to take safe communication more seriously than we have; the pandemic has made that obvious.) The high school alone has over 1,100 students. Even if they had a Gigabit connection, this would mean that less than 1 Mbit was available to each student at any one time. Now add staff needs to this and it becomes clear we actually need much more. For reference, the Canadian standard for free “internet as a right” is 50 Mbits down and 10 Mbits up per individual. Yet not even the school’s own tests come even close to these speeds when you consider the load on the network and, of course, the number of people using the network is usually much higher. At a minimum, the school district should be pushing for Gigabit at all schools, libraries, and other public areas. We have public fiber in the ground that is underutilized, so what are they waiting for? Another pandemic? Maybe that’s it, maybe during the next pandemic they’ll finally let the community use the broadband resources they’ve paid for.
Every one of these public locations should include external wireless access points (APs) since a lot of people are working in their cars because… well, they don’t want to die. External APs are cheap, and tech savvy volunteers have offered to help the schools install them. I have found good external APs starting at $300. Assuming about five hours labor to install one, at $20/hour for a school tech, we are looking at about $400 per external AP for installation. Of course, volunteers are willing to install them for free. So assuming each school has one AP installed, we’re looking at only $8,800 to have all of our current schools equipped to provide free internet for decades. Even if they want to step up to a higher-class device, the cost is about $16,000 for all the schools. Something tells me they can find about one-thousandth of their tech levy money to have these installed.
This CDC article discusses the need for schools to share their resources with the community, largely to build trust and productive relationships. However, since I started talking to the schools many years ago, Kurt Gazow has yet to install one external wireless access point (AP) at any school to provide free internet access to the community, or our publicly owned fiber resources. Kurt insists he doesn’t have the staff to do it, but then has consistently refused to allow volunteers, like me, to install them. It’s been 266 days since the March lockdown, cases are worse than ever, and the district is still only talking about installing one AP when the staff “has time.” Since they’ve had years to do this, one wonders “if not now, when?”
There is simply no sense of urgency among our upper echelon, who are not nearly as affected by all this as the poor. Think about it. The initial COVID-19 lockdown was March 23rd, 2020. The schools had all summer to prepare, but when school launched in September, they didn’t even have all the laptops ready for distribution. The idea of having low paid staff prepare laptops over the summer, which can be done with no risk of infection, just didn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind. Clearly, the community’s need for better broadband access was not even on their radar.
Handing out laptops to kids with poor internet connections is like handing them a shiny brick. While the schools’ recent internet cafes are a step in the right direction, many kids do not have transportation to get to the schools, so schools be pushing for fiber to homes. The school district knows this but is willing to trudge along on an ineffective path because they are afraid to anger the city or big telecom. So we see, yet again, a complete failure in leadership at the top of yet another governmental system. It’s obvious that with a few staff replacements, this would be a very different story.
Allow me to say that I would like to be writing a different story, a story about heroes who stepped up and used our public resources to help their fellow their citizens during a time of crisis. Like they did in Mason County’s PUD #3 (Shelton), where they used state grants to install free outdoor access points (APs) for their population only a few weeks after the first lockdown. Sadly, our leaders see it differently. In fact, in my conversations with Kurt he often refers to the schools’ gear in a possessive fashion, and talks about how they give the community things. Sorry, Kurt, you have that backward: The community gives you the resources to do your job. We own the equipment, and we expect it to be used appropriately so our kids can prepare for the future. So how about putting some of that $170 million the schools are getting in tech funding into fiber?
The disconnect comes in how supportive our communities are of the 22 schools in the Bellingham School District. We love our schools and most feel that if they need something, they should get it. In Bellingham, over the last 10 years I’ve lived here, every time the schools have asked for more money they have received it. When they wanted to build a $90 million high school, we supported it. When they wanted $170 million for technology recently, we supported it. Yet, when it comes to giving back to the community, to “building trust and productive relationships,” many school administrators see things differently than the rest of their staff. In no area is this more obvious than broadband.
I love our schools and want them to have everything they need. However, when it comes to tech, under our school’s current leadership, the schools seem to believe that the resources they have are theirs and not to be shared with the community that paid for them, even during a pandemic. This is especially disturbing because our schools are connected to public fiber that is largely under-utilized and could be helping a lot of people during the pandemic, but like the City of Bellingham, they are coveting them instead, and spending their money with big telecom for expensive, virtually worthless, solutions.
Please spend another minute to review the Bellingham Promise, the school district’s “collective commitment to Bellingham’s children.” As I read through “the Promise” I realized that their approach to broadband violates their promise to poor students at every level. The Promise (items in bold) says:
-All children should be loved:
But when we refuse our children the resources they need we are not showing them that we love them.
-The whole child is important (aka the WSCC, Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child model):
Most teachers support the idea of a publicly owned fiber network because they support the “whole child model,” but the school’s upper-echelon prefers a lackluster approach to broadband and there is little direction from the top. Administrators seem to want a hands-off approach and have demonstrated this by choosing to give millions in corporate welfare to big telecom for virtually worthless solutions instead.
Why? Well, politics. While the schools’ network is part of the state run K12/20 fiber system, it ultimately runs through the COB network for its last mile. Since everyone is afraid to ask Public Works Director Eric Johnston to do his job, the schools remain under-resourced in this area.
In fact, the schools didn’t even open up their internet cafes for the first 230 days of the lockdown, even though we suggested it and offered to help. They could have done this as soon as we went into Phase 2. Still, we should keep in mind that indoor internet cafes, for high risk individuals or those without access to transportation, remain useless. Many prefer to work from their cars because, again, they don’t want to die. And this is, of course, one of the many wonderful things about addressing our broadband issues and specifically providing a county-wide public fiber to the home solution: We can have people go to school, work and more, with vibrant, real-time, communications without having to put people at risk of catching or spreading COVID-19.
-Every child can learn at high levels:
This is not true unless they have free fiber to the home internet connections like they do in towns that have wisely invested in publicly owned fiber networks. The poor simply do not have the same educational opportunities as wealthier kids. We call this lack of access the Digital Divide.
-Early learning and development are critical:
Yes, which is why our kids need reliable, fast, internet access now. This is exactly why the schools need to use their influence to push the city and county to create a fiber network.
-Lifelong learning is essential to a high quality of life:
Agreed, and in the modern world this requires access to fiber to the home internet. Not the lackluster CenturyLink pretend fiber I wrote about in this article, but real, affordable, fiber.
-Compassion and service build community:
The schools are not demonstrating compassion by providing children laptops to take home to awful internet connections only to realize they can’t do their work, participate in Zoom calls, or other requirements.
-Teaching children to do their best involves self-reflection and reaching higher:
Agreed! Greg Baker, Kurt Gazow, and the upper echelons of our schools should do some self-reflection and ask themselves why they ignored a problem they’ve known about for the last five years. Why are they twiddling their thumbs during an emergency when they have the resources to help?
-Diversity enhances a strong and healthy community:
It is well known that the digital divide affects poor and minority communities more than anyone else. By ignoring the digital divide they are ignoring their own diversity goals.
-We achieve more together than alone:
True, and we’d like to be able to get together safely over the internet since COVID numbers are worse than ever. But this is simply not possible for our low-income children because Public Works Director Eric Johnston, and our school tech director Kurt Gazow, refuse to take critical infrastructure needs seriously. Instead, they are handing out corporate welfare to big telecoms for virtually worthless solutions like wireless and other big telecom low-income connections that are almost totally useless especially when compared with public fiber.
And finally, please remember, we are still waiting on that Broadband Advisory Group. The city is still dragging its feet on it, Bellingham still does not have a real Dig Once Policy, and they refuse to allow Open Access to our existing resources. And why are the schools protecting the COB, when, for decades, they have sold the community out to big telecoms to get connections that are failing us now and cost way too much; or the state for that matter, for doing such a poor job managing our public broadband resources? There are plenty of community minded individuals out there who would have taken care of this years ago and would be happy to have the high salaries and excellent benefits that our current directors enjoy.