Let me start by stating up-front that I am working on public fiber as a volunteer and my interest has no financial benefit to me. I actually want what’s best for Bellingham. And since I outline some criticism of the Bellingham Public Works department, I will also state that I think the people who do the real, physical labor in that department are working very hard. Still, it’s become clear to me that something fishy is going on with city leadership.
Even though 87% of Americans support net-neutrality, we are being pushed into provider-based regulation of our Internet access: anti-net neutrality. Locally, most Bellingham residents have only anti-net neutral choices for broadband access. Our mayor and some council members seem to think this assault on our First Amendment rights is totally acceptable.
Even though they could do something about it immediately by opening existing infrastructure for public use and establishing a Dig Once policy, the city is instead choosing to drag their feet and protect the big telecom companies. Our government is doing this even as heavy hitters like Harvard are showing that Community Broadband Networks are our best choice. Harvard Community Fiber Study In fact, the city went out of its way to support anti-net neutral providers like Comcast and CenturyLink as I’ve written about in previous articles posted here.
The city continues to insist they’ve broken up the Comcast monopoly by bringing in CenturyLink. But CenturyLink’s updated service is only available in limited sections of the city, and regardless, both companies are anti-net neutral, therefore, anti-First Amendment. Neither company offers a good choice for those who care about their constitutional rights.
In this update, there is both good news and bad news. The good news is that we have some real support at the local and state levels now, but we need to move quickly if we hope to protect our rights as Americans. The bad news is big telecoms have proven they are not trustworthy, never will be, and need to be replaced. They also have powerful political allies in our city government.
LACK OF TRANSPARENCY
Recently, the Bellingham Public Works department tried to dodge several e-mails and a public records request for specifics about our existing network. Fortunately, an attorney for the city, James Erb, followed up on the request for receipts and locations for cabling and conduit. Erb said it was disturbing to be told that they have virtually no receipts or other documents for the thousands of dollars they’ve spent on the network over nearly 40-years.
One could speculate the department was withholding information for “security reasons.” Had that been the case, they would have stated it as their reason for not responding to our requests. Instead, they told the city’s attorney that they simply do not have more records.
Keep in mind, there is an understandable, yet disturbing, reason for government entities to skimp on keeping documents: If a document doesn’t exist, when a public records request is made, they have nothing to show and don’t have to produce the record. When Erb pushed for more information, he was allowed to take a picture of the 1980’s style drawing shown above. In 2018, 21 years after the mapping software ArcGIS was released, this is the sketch Bellingham is still using for their fiber network. A drawing might be acceptable if it was accurate and updated, but city officials have said this is not accurate, it’s just the best they have.
So, this picture, along with some old, outdated, school district documents provide an inaccurate picture of locations and capacity. What they show is that most of our schools are under-served, even though the capacity exists for the city to give them significantly more bandwidth at very low cost.
Public Works Director Ted Carlson is being paid to develop and oversee public infrastructure. At the end of the day, this issue—and others—rests squarely on his shoulders. Under Carlson’s direction, the city has also reneged on its plans to have a third party audit its resources and instead decided to do it in-house. At the November 13th City Council meeting, Carlson stated that an outside audit would cost about $60,000 dollars. Under normal circumstances, I would applaud them for saving money. In this situation, it seems inappropriate for the CoB to audit this in a non-transparent way.
The mayor and some members of the City Council appear to be very friendly to private, anti-net neutral telecoms like Comcast and CenturyLink, and seem to be blocking progress for personal reasons. This was made evident at several meetings over the last year and a half. You can find old COB meetings here. Going forward, I recommend all voters ask the mayoral candidates if they will perform a transparent investigation of the Public Works department if they are elected. Bellingham deserves a mayor and department directors who will work in the interest of the public and not just the top 1%.
The city’s claim that there is nothing they can do for us right now is disingenuous. They contend they need the 2-inch conduit they’re currently installing for their own future expansion. But they have acknowledged that their fiber runs range from 6 strands to 144 strands. Since at least 864 strands of fiber will fit in a 2-inch conduit, and fiber now costs less than fishing line, their conduit provides plenty of room for inexpensive expansion in our existing infrastructure.
In spite of the resistance from the city, there is positive news coming from the state and the Port of Bellingham. I have had several discussions with Michael Shepard, the port commissioner from District 1, about the role the port can play in helping provide net-neutral, local, broadband options to Bellingham. Shepard’s position is that an open network is essential. The port already has the legal framework for public-private partnerships in place.
The port is waiting on HB-6224, and its Senate companion bill, SB-6426, to pass the Legislature. This bill will remove a rural restriction from the bill that prevents ports that have more than 100 people per square mile, like the Port of Bellingham, from expanding in the same manner as smaller ports like the Port of Skagit.
Here is a link for more information. http://app.leg.wa.gov/billsummary?BillNumber=2664&Year=2017
Also, here is a link to find out who your representatives and senators are. http://app.leg.wa.gov/DistrictFinder/
The port’s support is most welcome, and a beacon of hope in this dark time. Still, it is only one of three things we need to happen. The other two are: commitments from the city and county to establish real Dig Once policies, and city/county commitment supporting net-neutral providers and fiber expansion.
There is also some good news coming from the state. I was fortunate to speak with Governor Inslee’s senior policy advisor about ways the
state might promote net-neutral communication. She told me they have plans to help smaller, net-neutral providers expand. One idea is to allow net-neutral providers virtually free
access to state-owned conduit along I-5 and other state roads. This would be a boon for Bellingham, because I-5 runs through a large part of it.
As publicly owned fiber moves forward, we expect serious pushback from the big anti-net neutral telecoms like CenturyLink, Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T. With support on the inside from Mayor Linville, some city staff, and some council members, the fight to get real, next-generation, net-neutral expansion is much harder here than in other places. If we lose this fight, we will continue to fall farther behind other cities in our area, both economically and from a social justice standpoint.
Councilmembers Michael Lilliquist, Roxanne Murphy, and Pinky Vargas have all said, “fiber is inevitable” and pushed for a Dig Once policy at the November 13th council meeting. However, Roxanne has praised CenturyLink at other meetings so it’s tough to get a feel for what is actually going on. In the end, they need our support to move forward with installing public infrastructure because politicians and nation-wide corporations are trying to slow this process, hoping the issue will just go away.
Remember, we already gave enough money to provide every American with fiber-to-home connections of about 1Gbps symmetrical to the big telecoms. That money has disappeared, and the improvements have never been made. We deserve better, especially because we’ve already paid for it. https://nationaleconomicseditorial.com/2017/11/27/americans-fiber-optic-internet/
Even before we lost net-neutrality we were paying some of the highest prices in the developed world for broadband. Don’t believe the big telecom hype. They never have been and never will be trustworthy. All of their speed quotes come with caveats attached to them. All dealings with them are “buyer beware.”
The telecom industry’s attack on net-neutrality is an attack on our core values as Americans. We need to stop doing business with them and we need to stop tolerating politicians and their cronies who protect companies that undermine our right to free speech. We need common-sense infrastructure improvements.
Be aware that CenturyLink, Comcast and other telecoms are big advertisers in the Herald and because of that you will never see an article like this in the Herald.
https://justcast.herokuapp.com/shows/kmre-102-3-fm-spark-radio-cascadia-news-now/audioposts/353544 Finally, for more information you can listen to my KMRE interview.
Publisher note: Jon is very committed to bringing public fiber to Bellingham. This commitment does not diminish the news value of this article. He is a voice that needs to be heard and we are pleased he is writing for NW Citizen. You can visit his website and sign his petition at: https://www.change.org/p/mayorsoffice-cob-org-bellingham-public-fiber-optic-network - John Servais