Bandwidth is now an essential commodity, in the same category as electricity, water and sewer. Next-generation tech infrastructure is the only way Bellingham can hope to be the home of next-generation businesses and ensure that citizens are equipped to meet the challenges of the future. Other cities in Washington, such as Mount Vernon and Burlington, have already begun installing public fiber optic networks. Bellingham should be leading the way into the future, not bringing up the rear. Unfortunately, our city leaders have refused to address this critical issue, instead looking to short-term profit-driven corporations for our infrastructure needs. A public fiber network is a basic public necessity that would benefit our community for generations and Bellingham should invest in it now. It would begin paying for itself as it is installed.
A public fiber network would:
1. Help create good jobs by attracting next-generation businesses, spurring creation of new ones, and allowing existing businesses to expand into new areas.
2. Allow small and potentially game-changing companies to compete on a level playing field with big players. It would keep us from cripplingly expensive private fiber options or unreliable satellite and wireless connections.
3. Help us close the digital divide. One third of our residents earn less than $25,000 a year. Introducing public fiber would allow better, faster, and cheaper Internet options than currently exist. As more schools require using computers, students with good Internet connections at home have an advantage. Moreover, students of all ages will benefit from unfettered, high-speed access to educational material the Internet can provide.
Publicly owned Internet fiber would be a huge technological leap for Bellingham. True fiber optic connections are totally different than anything CenturyLink or Comcast offers the majority of their customers. Fiber is extremely high speed and transfers data at the same speed in both directions. The city installs fiber in its buildings and has excess room for even more expansion. But instead of pursuing a public option that would bring fiber to the rest of the community, our officials continue to hand our critical infrastructure needs to private corporations.
The hope that a private company like Comcast or CenturyLink will meet public infrastructure needs has already failed in Seattle. CenturyLink made all sorts of promises to ensure it got a profitable cable TV franchise in King County, but predictably, it reneged on its promises in order to protect its bottom line. Stories from Comcast customers are the same.
Don’t be fooled by claims that wireless solutions will meet our needs. Think of wireless as a narrow road with limited lanes as opposed to an eight-lane freeway. Wireless is convenient and we should install publicly owned wireless infrastructure, too. But we need a robust fiber network to backup any wireless network because wireless has a host of problems of its own. It has limited range, operates over a much more restricted bandwidth than fiber, and has problems with physical obstructions. Also, we know very little about the long-term health effects of being surrounded by wireless dishes. Without a robust fiber solution, wireless will be a stopgap measure at best. Waiting for private companies to bring in lots of wireless is not a solution.
Without a public network, we will never have net-neutral connections because we have no enforceable contracts with any of the providers and lack the will to hold them accountable for their behavior. Without net-neutrality, companies like Comcast and Century Link can throttle some connections and boost others. This can lead to serious consequences for a democratic society, including censorship of the news. The most likely strategy would be to base one’s Internet speed on the amount a person can pay for their connection. Think of it as robbing bandwidth from the poorest users to give to the wealthiest users.
We must push our elected officials to provide a long-lasting legacy to Bellingham’s citizens. A next-generation fiber network can counter our perpetual unemployment, underemployment, and educational issues. So far, the city’s only concrete response to our outdated tech infrastructure has been to give CenturyLink a new cable TV franchise and hope they make good on vague promises to provide minor, localized improvements. New cable TV lines controlled by a private corporation are not the answer. CenturyLink has neither the means nor the incentive to create a foundation for comprehensive, net-neutral, community-wide broadband access. In fact, none of the large providers do.
Internet fiber needs to be owned by the public, like most important infrastructure. We can afford fiber and it is to our advantage to increase our self-reliance as a city. When the waterfront project is finally finished, current estimates are that it will have cost at least $30.6 million. Running a twenty-first century fiber network to every corner of Bellingham would cost about a quarter of that amount. The Tulalip Tribe has been able to install fiber even cheaper.
For over a year now, I have worked to bring publicly owned fiber optic Internet to Bellingham. I am not a professional lobbyist, but have met with installers, government officials, and providers while researching the issue. I have been surprised that this commonsense project that would benefit the whole community has gotten so little traction with our civic leaders. Fiber is a real, durable, infrastructure upgrade that will improve lives in our community. To encourage our elected officials to pay attention to this important issue I have created a petition on change.org. Please visit the site and sign the petition. There is more information on the website. Here is the link:
or simply go to Change.org and search for Bellingham Public Fiber
Editor Note: On Monday, July 24, the Bellingham City Council will hold a public hearing at 7 pm on signing a new contract with CenturyLink to provide Internet service in Bellingham.