Topic: Business (269)

What Cascadia Daily News Should Have Said

CDN did a report on a report. Where was the investigative journalism?

CDN did a report on a report. Where was the investigative journalism?

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Recently, the Broadband Advisory Group presented to City Council a report on the direction the city might take to improve our internet service. The report was generated by Magellan Advisors consulting firm, under the supervision of the BAG. Magellan’s payment was not to exceed $99,750.00. The Cascadia Daily News covered the presentation to council in the story, Report: Bellingham Should Not Become a Broadband Provider. Let’s take a closer look at this article and the report. 

I recommend you start by reviewing all the Broadband Advisory Group’s connections to big telecom outlined in my article here. The report was primarily presented by BAG committee member and WAVE executive, Milissa Miller. After an intro, the article starts:


“The notion of city government selling broadband internet to residents has its fans, but the report concluded such a plan would be “extremely expensive, and the debt service to build such a network would be unsustainable,” Broadband Advisory Workgroup member (and WAVE executive) Milissa Miller told the City Council. The consulting firm Magellan Advisors wrote the report with oversight from the citizen-led workgroup.” 
 

  1. “Extremely expensive??” Milissa Miller is an executive with WAVE broadband company. WAVE charges $35,000 or more to get connected and $900 a month for gigabit fiber. In comparison, places with public fiber networks, like Anacortes, usually charge less than $500 to connect, and gigabit FTTP (fiber to the premises) is $70 a month. Miller is also a voting member of the group while other big telecoms, like Comcast, are non-voting. And, WAVE has a non-voting member as well, giving them two members on the BAG. No other provider or interest has more than one.
  2. The consulting firm Magellan Advisors has a reputation and track record of being brought in to create reports favorable to big telecom, which is evident here as the suggestions from members of the BAG for public services are almost non-existent and conveniently left out of the report in favor of special interests like WAVE and Comcast.

 

“Bringing the existing city-owned fiber network to every home and business could add more than $600 million to the city’s debt load, the report said.”

  1. That’s funny because when the Broadband Advisory Group was formed Public Works Director Eric Johnston referred to the existing network as “robust” and said it runs throughout most of the city, which it is and does (see map). Using the existing network would not cost anything. In fact, it would make money through leasing which would pay for its own expansion. See the picture above for the city’s existing network map. Guess Johnston changed his tune after big telecom had a nice long talk with him. Now we’re no longer “robust” even though we have an existing network that runs throughout the entire city (see map). 
  2. In conversations with the City of Mount Vernon IT department I found out that the cost of running fiber in neighboring Mount Vernon is usually only about $180K a mile, while the nationwide average is $25K to $55K a mile. FYI, Bellingham is only about 29 square miles. The argument can be made that it’s easier to install fiber in a more rural area like Mount Vernon than the COB,
    3. Further, by pairing the installation of fiber with a Dig Once Policy, the cost of putting in fiber would be reduced by 90%. Just one more thing they’re all well aware of.

Theres still misinformation, I think to a certain extent, that swirls around this topic,” said workgroup member RB Tewksbury, alluding to the communitys interest in having Bellingham become an internet service provider or ISP. It could bankrupt the city if we try to go into direct competition with the ISPs in a market that has this much coverage,” Tewksbury said.

  1. For starters, the network we’re suggesting would not bankrupt the city because it would NOT be installed/upgraded all at once.
  2. Also, the report completely ignores the idea of an OpenAccess model, which is the system Mount Vernon uses. OpenAccess would allow local net-neutral ISPs, like PogoZone, to simply lease the fiber and provide us the service. The city wouldn’t need to become an ISP at all.
  3. But, if the city were a provider, they would actually make money from their customers; which is exactly why big telecom is fighting so hard to constrain and retain us. For the city, infrastructure upgrades would be paid for the same way any ISP pays for them. The difference between public vs. private ISPs would be better connectivity, a lower price, and all the social and economic benefits that come with fairly-priced, accessible, lightning speed internet.
  4. Finally, there is NO mention that Comcast, Lumen (aka CenturyLink) and other connections are simply NOT equivalent to FTTP connectionsIn fact, Satpal’s favorite connection type, Starlink, is starting to exhibit all of the problems we told him it would before he forced it on the Nooksack people instead of building them a fiber network like the Tulalip people have had for decades.

 


“A survey included in Magellan’s report showed 91% of respondents in the city had high-speed broadband, with almost all of the service coming from two providers: Comcast and Lumen.”As I’ve written before, the standards COB and Magellan used were low. In this study, “high-speed” was based on the then federal standard for high-speed, which was pathetic at 25/3 (Mbits download and upload). The state standard is 100/20. For comparison, gigabit service in Anacortes is 1,000/1,000.

  1. To further skew the numbers, they made it difficult for people without internet connections to participate in the study. For example, weeks into the survey, I went to the library to get a paper copy of it but no one had them. Also, the number of respondents in the study was too low to be statistically viable. Magellan’s own report shows that there were only 1,625 responses with only 26 paper respondents.
  2. Another built-in prejudice was that the tester they used is inaccurate and biased toward making big telecom connections look much better than they are. When I offered to run better RRUL network load testing on 1,000 sites for only $11,000 , County Executive Sidhu went out of his way to block it, insisting on a study 10 times the cost, using a less accurate tester. My proposal was to do it at cost to benefit the community. I just wanted to cover fuel, wear and tear, and pay myself a minimum wage. But, no. Why? Because accurate testing would blow a hole in the idea that we have adequate coverage. It’s vital that big telecom keep running inaccurate tests to keep providing us with overpriced, obsolete, service. 

     

“The city has built its own patchwork fiber network over the past 30 years that amounts to more than 100 miles of cable, used by the city, county emergency services, Bellingham Public Schools and Whatcom Transportation Authority. Since the network was built in an “ad hoc, project-oriented” manner, per the report, it can’t easily be expanded into a citywide system.

Instead, Magellan recommended the city build out its fiber network to make it attractive on the wholesale market to certain businesses and internet service providers. The consultant’s report said more research was needed to determine the cost of such upgrades.”

  1. Eric Johnston, head of public works, said at the start of the BAG meetings that our network was “robust.”
  2. We just paid Magellan nearly $100,000 to do a study. How can more study be needed? Can we have our $100K back?
  3. OpenAccess, and/or building the network to be attractive to the wholesale market, was always on the BAG’s agenda. How did any mention of that get left out of this pro-WAVE report and the CDN article?
  4. The map shows we already have a city-wide system. Do they think we can’t read a map?

 

The report left other questions unanswered, workgroup and City Council members said. Businesses werent adequately surveyed, so it was unclear how well existing broadband is serving that sector. The consultant didnt look into how Bellingham might get high-speed internet to residents who dont have it, either because they cant afford it or they lack the technical know-how to operate the service in their homes.

One of our focuses was to look at the underserved and unserved market, and that ... was not really addressed from the consultants level,” workgroup member Steven Spitzer said. Theres still a lot of work to do for that segment of the population.”

  1. How were businesses not “adequately surveyed?” We paid Magellan to do this. Were they hired to meet citizens’ needs, or to protect big telecom interests?
  2. The city, PUD and Port all have broadband specialists, network technicians, and the equipment to install fiber. Why can’t they get broadband to residents? They are sitting on an existing network. If government doesn’t want to be a provider, a local company like PogoZone can do it. Yet this option was left out of the report. Again, are they protecting big telecom? Milissa Miller of WAVE is.
  3. The technical ability of residents is irrelevant. Whether a municipal network or an OpenAccess network, the provider would include customer service. There is no problem with the abilities of residents here; this contention in the report is nonsense.
  4. Many businesses and individuals have the ability and expertise to operate their own network. Many of us grew up with technology. Even if we didn’t, the Fiber-Optic Association provides free training and even a $20 certification in the installation and operation of fiber networks via FiberU. So again, their argument is nonsensical and designed to protect WAVE and big telecom.

 

“Gina Stark, Port of Bellingham’s broadband manager and a nonvoting member of the workgroup, said in an email the Port may be able to help the city with its broadband improvements. The Port has secured millions of dollars in grants to extend fiber to underserved and unserved parts of rural Whatcom County.

“The Port welcomes the opportunity to partner with the city — or any other public or private organization — to increase the availability, affordability and equitable quality of broadband access throughout our community,” Stark said.

            This is good news. The Port is allowed to be an ISP and has a good relationship with local providers like  PogoZone. Where is the PUD in all of this? PUD Commissioner Christine Grant refuses to comment.

 

“Discussions are in the early stages, but some council members appear ready to make significant investments in the city’s broadband infrastructure. Councilor Lisa Anderson suggested adding a new division head in City Hall, “much like how the city funded a climate position.”

Anderson added that the city should start treating broadband like the other utilities it manages.

“Having access to the technology … is as essential to us as power, as sewer, as water,” she said. “So we really do need to look at how we are going to be staffing this system, to be able to go forward.””

             Anderson is right, but why have we waited through an entire pandemic to access our existing   infrastructure? Why is there no pushback from council members who have read “Fiber,” or my articles, or spoken with Community Broadband Networks, and the FOA, and who know the information in this report was skewed and manipulated? Where was the push-back? Where were the broadband specialists and the network technicians from the city, Port and PUD? Will the city at least have the common sense to have the new broadband position report directly to the mayor“

City staff should be ready to resume the broadband discussion with the council in November, Public Works Director Eric Johnston said.”

  1. Is the council going to bring in an unbiased professional to participate in those discussions? No. Their bias was made clear when members of the Technology Alliance Group for Northwest Washington tried to kill the “Whatcom County Broadband Strategy” document. John Servais wrote about that issue here. They were Milissa and Frank Miller of WAVE, PUD Commissioner Grant (who is good friends with Milissa Miller and sick of being held accountable), and Andrew Reding (Chair of the Whatcom Democrats) who is also sick of his candidates being held legitimately accountable.
  2. Where is our Dig Once Policy? Oh yeah, Lilliquist and Johnston wrote a fake one to try and fool us instead.
  3. Johnston has been shown time and time again to have abused his position in order to protect big telecom. When are they going to fire him and get someone reputable instead?

 

Overall, the biggest disappointment is with Cascadia Daily News. Although they dutifully reported what was in the Magellan report, this was the perfect opportunity to do some old-fashioned investigative journalism. But they didn’t.

 

   


 

About Jon Humphrey

Citizen Journalist • Bellingham • Member since May 23, 2017

Comments by Readers

Jeffrey Bodé

Oct 01, 2022

Bellingham has a reputation for hiring outside experts to justify - via long, expensive reports - decisions already reached by the affected staff or council subcomms.  You, Jon, have more staying power as a independent voice than any corruptable insider.  Thank you for your crusade.  I know rural county educators who lack decent internet access and get ignored when they voice the facts.  Make yourself impossible to ignore.

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David Donohue

Oct 01, 2022

I have long thought the PUD should be doing this.  

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Ellen Baker-Glacier

Oct 01, 2022

I don’t weigh-in here often, but I’ve been following to read folks’ input and views on this issue for some time, following the debate, trying to figure out what’s realistic and best.

I do think it’s in order to question the interests and perspectives of consultants.  I’ve seen the havoc that consultants can wreak where it comes to steering public policy (and the public purse) toward wallets.  The public paid for this “analysis,” so it had better be objective.

That said, from the start I’ve questioned the wisdom of the basic premise that “communications” infrastructure (internet and phone) should be centrally provided as a public (city) utility.  I don’t think that technical services fall into realm of “the commons” as it were, in poli-sci parlance.

I realize that many people come to the issue saying, “Water service works that way,” and therefore this utility should be centralized and government run.  Some think that all utility infrastructure is comparable to “water services”, but I don’t think all utilities or infrastructure are fit for comparison to “water.”  Why?

Water is a “natural resource.”  The public (“the people”) actually have an ownership interest in this completely natural resource (the “waters of the state”).  Access to and use of water is completely different from “generated” and “technical” services like electricity and communications (and the infrastructure necessary to operate those services).

Categorically, water truly falls into “the commons.”  And however people may squabble over how “paper rights” are determined (who has priority use of what, and where), “the people” actually do have an at-large interest because “waters of the state” are OWNED by all of us (should be).

Where it comes to things like energy (electricity, which has to be generated and distributed) and “communications,” these services may be wanted, needed, and used by virtually everyone but neither compares to access and sharing of natural resources like air and water (which should never fall into private hands - trusts or monopolies IMHO).

Seeing how poorly our governments have handled the bona fide natural resources “commons” regarding water, I don’t favor putting either “communications” or “electricity” into the hands of squabbling politicians or commissions.  Both are always moved by special interests and lobbies.  There’s already very little transparency and accountability where it comes to the federal and state “utility commissions” if you’ve looked at what they do.

Then there’s the matter of what “basic service” means re internet and phone.  Density drives economies of scale.  Communications technology evolves constantly.  Heck if I want “county council” or “city councils” (and their consultants) waffling and taxing, subsidizing ‘solutions’ that aren’t viable in their own right.  Franchise awards are already contentious.  I don’t know how wise it is to hand over big decisions to politicians (and their consultants) where it comes to these services.  Heck, even garbage collection service franchises are contentious (Point Roberts, for example).

Not much more than a hundred years ago, trollies and fire engines (and just about everything else down to plows) were horse drawn.  It’s been market competition that’s driven innovation, and most technological advances have had to pay for themselves based on merit and volume.  I don’t know what kind of services we’d have today if government agencies and committees had complete control of all communications services.  Heck, “the Bells” (AT&T) monopolies were only broken up in 1982.  Sorry about the rambling.

So, in closing, yes do question the consultant’s objectivity and conclusions.  But even more, please step back and question the premise.  More than one “countywide” agency has already tried poking into this utilities area, and bungled (squandering big money).  Where it comes to centralization, be careful what you ask for, you just may get it.

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Thomas R. Scott

Oct 02, 2022

The PUD has been mentioned throughout in this discussion, spanning several reports and articles.

Above, Mr. Donohue, mentioned that “the PUD should be doing this”, as have others.  Others questioned why the PUD hadn’t or wasn’t providing fiber ISP services.

They did so several years ago.  PUD#1 states “First came power and then water.”  No mention of their foray into the realm of Information or fiber.

That is likely because, unfortunately, it was ill-conceived (as born out by the results), mostly by someone with little, if any background on the topic.  Given that “history is written by the victors” and there are no victors in this case, it is not surprising there is no mention of this in their history page.  Government bodies, maybe more than anyone, are loath to document their embarrassing chapters in history.  Even more loath when bureaucrats were forced to scuttle away to other bureaucracies as a response, with their political overseers worrying about their positions as well.

Anyway, in the run-up to the endeavor, the main business model designer and the PUD Executive Director (ED) ignored questions and recommendations by those, in and out of government, who had experience in providing ISP services.

Just one huge and fatal oversight on their part was no operating budget for internal technical support.  In general, most or all of their budgeting was for capital expenses with little, if any, operating expenses.

The interim result was complete financial implosion after a rather short period, with assets being left mostly unused.  The situation never improved.  After refusing to sell their fiber, copper, conduit and other related assets to a local-ish ISP (albeit at pennies on the dollar), they ended selling to the same ISP for EVEN LESS maybe about a year later after the institution started to cavitate politically as questions started to stream in and some minor press interest.  One segment of their ISP assets was sold to another local ISP at around the same time (as I recall, also at a loss, but don’t know if it was at a further loss than previously offered).

The end result was complete and utter failure, with the City having to recover fiber that they could not legally allow being in private hands and two PUD employees parachuting to other locations.  I believe that the transfers were lateral with little real accountability involved.

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Jon Humphrey

Oct 02, 2022

Thanks everyone. I’m just going to make a few notes.
1. Changes in our states laws about 3 years ago allow the PUD and Port to serve as ISPs. Before this many other towns approached the issue of a lack of fiber by installing OpenAccess networks. See Kitsap PUD, Mount Vernon, CPUD, and more. All have Dig Once Policies or equivalents.
2. Nielsen’s Law of Internet Bandwidth shows us that our need for bandwidth grows about 50% every year. No other technology comes close to the performance of FTTP (fiber to the premises) and all other broadband tech should be considered, at best, as extensions of fiber. Some, like Lumen/Century Link DSL are simply obsolete.
3. The COB has robust resources that can be used immediately. It makes no sense for them to keep sitting on them as they can make money via leasing to expand the network. In an OpenAccess model private entities can lease the fiber too. This is the model Mount Vernon uses.
4. Where is our Dig Once policy? It reduces the cost of installation by 90% and is the most environmentally sound way to install infrastructure?
5. The PUD now has more resources than ever before. Recently they hired a Broadband Specialist named Andrew. Sadly, Commissioner Grant then pushed for a new General Manager who is keeping Andrew from doing anything useful. Why the Commissioners hired a new GM that’s just like the old GM is beyond me.
6. The COB is planning on hiring a fiber-optic network engineer. HOWEVER, they also plan on having them report to Director Johnston, who will most likely keep them from doing anything useful too. Just like the PUDs GM. Hopefully, the COB will come to their senses and have the new employee report directly to the mayor and/or finally fire Johnston.
7. The most successful networks in the world are municipal fiber networks. As highlighted in the book “Fiber” by Susan Crawford (I donated a copy to the library, btw) Chatanooga offers gigabit FTTP services for $70 a month (so does Anacortes) and 10 Gig FTTP services for much as Comcast offers fake Gig service for which most Bellinghammers can’t even get even if they have the money since Comcast won’t upgrade us to DOCSIS 4.0 or even 3.1 in most cases. (See my articles on RRUL testing.)
8. Giving money to the private sector doesn’t work. Between the Biden administrations current efforts, and previous efforts, a total of about $500 Billion was given to big telecom for a fiber network that never appeared. Many of the programs put in place by the current administration will disappear once the money dries up as they are based on existing services, and vouchers, and not significant fiber-optic infrastructure upgrades.
https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-book-of-broken-promis_b_5839394
So, I think it’s obvious that in the short term the COB should at least pursue an OpenAccess network. Mount Vernon has 9 local net-neutral providers on theirs. PogoZone being the largest. PogoZone also operates in Bellingham. In fact, the owner lives here. So these resources could be put to use tomorrow if the Councils would just let people get to work and have the common sense to lease out existing infrastructure and stop playing games. Competition is good for everyone but big telecom.  

 

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