Like many, I had high hopes when Cascadia Daily News announced a new investigative news platform here in Whatcom County. I am sad to say that shortly after being launched, CDN released an article about broadband like something the Bellingham Herald might publish to protect corrupt legislators and corporate interests. I had hoped to see some questions, facts, figures, and investigation, but “Affordable Internet Access Reaches Rural Whatcom County” was disappointing at best.
The article starts by claiming that fast and affordable internet access is coming to underserved parts of the county thanks to a $10 million grant received by the Port. Yet, there is no definition of what “fast” or “affordable” means to any of the parties involved. As an example, on the Anacortes public fiber network, “affordable” means $70 a month with a $100 one-time hook-up fee and actual consistent Gigabit (1,000 Mbps download and upload speeds). It also includes not just a fiber-to-the-home connection but proper fiber connections all the way to Seattle. Anacortes also offers a lower-priced option of 100 Mbits for only $40. This article doesn’t tell us how much it will cost consumers, but I can guarantee it will not be as valuable as Anacortes, Mount Vernon, or most public networks because they will mix different and even obsolete last mile connections into their infrastructure.
I know from research that the Port/PUD is planning nothing like what’s available to our neighbors to the south. And there is a reason they have purposely set no real standards: it is an effort to appease private interests. There are no last-mile standards for performance mentioned anywhere, and they intend to allow providers to mix other lower performance technologies with fiber. The result will be connection speeds that won’t hold up to proper RRUL network load testing and will be as bad as the connections throughout the City of Bellingham. Overall, these new hookups will be less reliable and the cost per Mbit will be higher than that of our neighbors.
The article goes on to talk about “widespread inaccessibility.” Yes, a quarter of rural America lacks internet access, but the way to provide access to infrastructure is to build fiber out to consumers like we did with electricity and the Rural Electrification Act. Pretending the Port/PUD can’t run fiber to these communities and must use underperforming tech instead, is deception. The PUD has hired two new employees, brought in specifically to work on broadband, and has millions of dollars in equipment to install infrastructure. The reason our section of rural America doesn’t have adequate broadband is that our officials chose not to install it. Simple as that. I particularly point blame at Satpal Sidhu, Michael Sheppard, Christine Grant and Ken Bell, who put internal politics ahead of infrastructure.
Sidhu says he understands that high-speed internet is essential. Sadly, in spite of all the corporate welfare he’s doled out to private industry, they just haven’t been able to get infrastructure all the way out in the county. So what happened? Because we sure could have used it during the pandemic. What he is really saying is that while you were all suffering, and he could have helped, he instead abused his position for as long as possible and protected special interests.
1,100 homes in Ferndale are due to be connected. Again, to what standard and at what cost to customers? No mention of this is made. Ferndale has about 15,000 residents; average occupancy of homes in the U.S. is 2.53 people, giving us an estimate of 5,888 homes in Ferndale. This tells us that for the six years PUD Commissioner Michael Sheppard has been sort of working on this issue, we will serve one-fifth of the homes with questionable internet. At this rate, it will take another 30 years until Ferndale residents can expect to have questionable service to all of their homes. This is assuming Ferndale doesn’t grow.
I also remind everyone that the population of Whatcom County is almost 250,000. Michael Sheppard says that ultimately this plan will serve about 2,200 people but they still have to wait at least another year for it. So, I guess if we serve about 2,200 people every six years, then Whatcom County residents can expect to wait another century to get connections that will be decades behind what people on public networks can get now in surrounding areas.
In a recent e-mail, Michael Sheppard and Christine Grant claimed that many of these residents would have gigabit service available. They should have put quotation marks around the word “gigabit” since they were referring to the same pretend “gigabit” service provided by Comcast, CenturyLink, Ziply, and the other special interests. I’ve written about it before: their gigabit service refers to download speed only, and even then it does not hold up to load testing. For the county and Port and PUD to provide this kind of pretend gigabit service is no worry to big telecom at all, because we won’t be offering real gigabit service either and most customers won’t see gigabit speeds consistently; just like on the obsolete-tech-based big telecom connections in Bellingham. And remember that all of the problems with this tech are cumulative, which means, if you are sharing bandwidth, and a lot of others are using it at the same time, your upload speed will especially suffer. Every problem amplifies itself because a network is only as strong as its weakest link. This really matters when you need two-way HD communication, like on a telemedicine call with your doctor. Will it be better than nothing? Sure, like having an unreliable, junker car is better than no car at all.
Furthermore, PUD Commissioner Grant is giving citizens the runaround in an effort to stop them from bothering her. Instead of answering questions directly, she is suggesting they watch hours of PUD meeting videos, which also have virtually no real specifics in them. The other commissioners simply don’t respond at all.
The bottom line is that our public officials and institutions abandoned us throughout the pandemic. Now, they propose that over the next 15 years they will build out a network that is already 20 years behind Mount Vernon or Anacortes standards. They simply don’t need to do this. They have the equipment, personnel, funding, and public interest to get it done in five years. A city/county-wide fiber network would cost about $160 million. Currently there is only $10 million accounted for in the Port’s grant. They are pretending they have already done something for the community, while functionally having done almost nothing. Their past performance shows they care more about keeping the special interests happy.
And, let’s not let the other commissioners off the hook. Here is a link to the Fiber Optic Association website where they can learn about modern communications. Ask your elected officials working on broadband to consider learning how to do research and encourage them to do some on this site instead of continuing to play games with our future.
As an aside, we expect Republicans to generally side with private interests, but it turns out that here in Whatcom County, it’s the corporate Democrats who play along and remove the counterbalance we need to have a thriving Democracy. Other areas of the state are leaving us in the dust while our Democrats won’t stand up for the average citizen. These Democrats are part of the problem.
The CDN article makes no mention of any of these details. They provide no real timetables, statistics, or performance standards. Did they simply get a press release from the Port/PUD and pretend it was an article? There are many technical writers who could have given them a properly researched, investigative piece on technology. Come on CDN, the Port and PUD both have staff to lie on their behalf. We don’t need you to do what the Herald does and print what they’re spoon feeding you. We need you to do what you said you set out to do: investigative journalism.