Before talking specifically about the heroic efforts of your fellow citizens to bring Bellingham into the 21st Century, it is necessary to start with some history of how hard Public Works have decided to make themselves for average citizens to deal with. I do not bring up difficult topics just for the sake of it or because of a personal vendetta with the government. I believe that a transparent, well functioning government can help us all do better. However, when it is not transparent, and does not work in the interest of most of the people, it acts as an anchor that threatens all of our rights and keeps us from moving forward as it is doing now. That is a situation that has to change.
While this issue was brought to the attention of our government decades ago, I will start with a description of an odd meeting I had in December of 2016 with Ted Carlson (our Public Works Director). In August of 2016 I met with Michael Lilliquist at the Black Drop Coffee shop to discuss the idea of public broadband. As an aside, I love their coffee, but have migrated to KATZ in Lynden lately for my beans. I am really into coffee. Still, I mean no disrespect. The Black Drop does make a damn fine cup of coffee after all.
Anyway, I offered volunteer services to help get things rolling and we talked about the status of our infrastructure. Specifically we talked about how inadequate, and over-priced, PSE’s aerial (aka pole-based) infrastructure is. PSE charges $600 per pole annually for leases. A representative from Portland, Oregon, public broadband network who came to my LinuxFest 2018 talk tells me that it is only $1 per pole for them to use their aerial infrastructure. So not only does PSE have a power monopoly here, but they appreciate that so little that they won’t even give public entities a reasonable rate to use their aging inadequate, poorly maintained, infrastructure. Here is a picture of a PSE pole that snapped in half because it was rotted out from the inside. Someone may want to discuss with PSE how to maintain a database for pole maintenance and remind them of what a sweet deal they have as the monopoly power provider in Bellingham. It would be OK if they helped out the community once in awhile.
After meeting with Michael, our government tried to stonewall the idea of Public Broadband for awhile. They were already in negotiations with CenturyLink, a company that even Gene Knutson has admitted, is hard to deal with, just like Comcast. The city’s IT director pushed this idea as hard as possible, even though we knew that this anti-net neutral, anti-first amendment company, would not even provide their new services to most people and they would cost at least 5 times as much as they do in Chattanooga, Tenn., or Kansas City and about 14 times as much as they do in Japan or South Korea.
After months of giving presentations, and using well-researched facts and data to argue my points, I was given a meeting with three of the city’s staff members including Ted Carlson (the Public Works Director), Marty Mulholland (the city’s IT Director) and Brian Heinrich (Deputy Administrator). Brian showed up so late that he basically wasn’t there. I took the owner of a local ISP with me who has been very successful on Mount Vernon’s public fiber network and in all of Skagit County. They will remain unnamed since this meeting, and other communications, have shown me how much dealing with our government is more like dealing with the mob than a public entity. I will refer to them as Phil for the rest of this article. Marty was professional but pushed CenturyLink hard. Ted tried to hide behind everything he could, including the homeless population and personally recommending WAVE broadband who charges $900 a month for Gigabit services and thousands just to get hooked up. WAVE representatives also like to hide behind the homeless as I wrote about in my last article which included a price comparison of services in Bellingham to other places with public broadband.
Phil and I spent 80 minutes outlining all of the advantages of a publicly-owned network that I have outlined here. Later that year Kim Kleppe, the IT director of Mount Vernon, would meet with Michael Lilliquist and Pinky Vargas about it too. Pinky walked away from the meeting saying that “fiber was inevitable” only to be blocked by April Barker who demanded that the idea just be investigated instead of approved at the November 13th, 2017 meeting following Mark Garnder’s presentation. I even offered volunteer services to help. When we specifically discussed how PSE’s pricing, and poorly maintained infrastructure, were a barrier to deploying aerial broadband, and how we should go underground with conduit anyway, Ted Carlson became annoyed. Assuming that our public servants would want to take care of the public, I backed up my position with stories from my neighbors about how our most vulnerable people were left without power and other critical services, for days during the preceding winter, and how in general our private companies don’t cut it. Ted stopped us and let us know that, “if we talked about the government seizing the power company” or continued to talk about PSE in a similar light he would end the meeting. Essentially he threatened us on behalf of PSE. At the end of the 80-minute meeting, Ted even pretended that nothing had been said. He took all of our research, and said, “Yeah, sounds like someone should look into it.” As if it hadn’t been before and he hadn’t received any useful information. Then on February 13, 2017, he would present a memo to the City Council and Mayor outlining all of the Big Telecom’s beliefs and failing to mention any of the data he was given at the December meeting. He would present these beliefs as his own. I followed up by sending the council a “corrected” version of the memo including all of the excluded information.
This leads us to April 23rd of this year and the supporters shown in the picture above. These citizens spoke about their experiences with the Big Telecoms and the need for public infrastructure. I am very grateful to all of them. Ted ran out before the Dig Once speakers started, most holding their colorful signs in the crowd since we’re not allowed to make noise in the meeting. Roxanne Murphy would end the meeting, before all citizens were able to speak about all of their concerns, by nothing that “the council had already been very generous with their time.” I can’t help but get the sense of dealing with self-appointed royalty when I attend such meetings. The vast majority of their discussions aren’t even held in a way that the public is allowed to comment on.
A few months earlier the council tried to rush through approval of a small-cell wireless bill before even talking about Dig Once. This was mostly done on behalf of the wishes of Verizon. I’ve written about this here before. This was mostly hilarious because you need fiber to back up small cells anyway. So establishing a policy for 5G wireless companies, before establishing a policy to build the infrastructure to support any broadband endeavor in a modern city is ludicrous. I spoke about this idea, and had my first amendment rights violated on behalf of the Big Telecoms by Council President Roxanne Murphy, as Dick Conoboy has written about here. The next day, Verizon started texting its customers to call the COB and support small cells. To this day, the council and mayor have met with no independent, impartial, experts about this technology.
Now we were waiting again. The Dig Once Policy was supposedly not to be discussed until June of this year. Yet, all of a sudden, it was moved up to April 23rd! Poorly-written documents were provided with it, along with a call for an unnecessary $300,000 feasibility study. A big telecom propaganda map was released along with it as well, instead of Public Works providing the requested information on the existing network like conduit size and fiber counts. This advertisement for the Big Telecoms, made by your government, was made using the lowest standards possible. Our public records request for details on the existing network is still being ignored.
So what did this say? Well, it said that they probably were going to try and quietly kill the Dig Once Policy without a vote by pretending that the council didn’t want it investigated. This is doubly funny, because the council had already ordered an investigation of it after Mark Gardner’s presentation on public broadband in November 2017, to be completed in June. April Barker even asked about the status of it at the March 12th council meeting. Ted was pretending, again, that he needed direction and didn’t know what to do. This is par for the course. They have meetings with no impartial experts, don’t allow the public any real time to comment, and then when you catch them in the act they claim they just didn’t understand what they were being asked to do. Really, our Public Works Department doesn’t understand what “Please put in extra, inexpensive, 2-inch pipes when you do a road repair” means? They need direction on that even after receiving all of the documents from other cities like Mount Vernon that have already done this? Well, you can decide if you want to give them the benefit of the doubt on that one.
Thankfully, we got the word out and many people showed up to speak on behalf of this common sense policy. However, even though Mount Vernon has provided us with their Dig Once documents and we can make simple modifications to them and just use them, we are currently reinventing the wheel. The government is back to not answering questions and not being transparent.
Fortunately, Michael Lilliquist has been asking most of the hard questions. Some have been forgotten though. For example, the idea that the lessors of public conduit and/or fiber have to be net-neutral is off the table for now, but at least Michael is trying to hold them accountable. I will post below the e-mail he sent to our Public Works director. Still, one wonders why we’re reinventing the wheel and putting up barriers. Public Works says they can’t even find receipts for equipment purchased over a 30-year period. Public Works requests public record request be withdrawn, as I’ve written about before. Mayor Linville won’t look into it?! Does this government consider themselves accountable to anyone?
The latest development on just about every issue of public concern is that now the government is saying that certain people have alienated them. They say that activists for the homeless community have alienated them, broadband, DADU, etc. All I’ve seen people do is ask hard questions, which they should be able to do of their government when people are literally freezing to death in our streets, can’t afford decent housing, and we are not improving our city to be able to compete in a modern market. This middle-school level response of “my feelings are hurt so I won’t talk about (choose your issue) with them anymore” is not even close to professional and not something we should tolerate from our government. It feels like the last ditch effort of a 7th grader before they’re sent to the principal’s office. In the meantime, the mayor’s office provided me with statistics showing me that 1/3rd of Bellingham residents earn less than $25,000 a year or less. This includes some families. Soon, they will not be able to afford to live here even though they make our town work everyday. Yet I hear the government tell us all the time that they don’t have enough staff and aren’t paid enough to do their jobs well. Well, compared with about 1/2 of our citizens they are paid well and have great benefit packages. So perhaps they should be thankful for what they have and get to work, because if most of us acted the way our mayor, council and public works director do at our jobs, we’d be fired. Why should we have a different expectation for the work the government does than we do for ourselves?
Here is Michael’s e-mail to Ted Carlson and the Public Works Commission (currently Gene Kuntson, Michael Lilliquist and Terry Bornemann)
—- original e-mail from Michael Lilliquist to Ted, Public Works Comission and a few others —-
Unfortunately, I will miss the next committee work sessions on Monday afternoon (I should be back for the evening meeting however). I am letting you know, because this written memo may be my only way to contribute to the Dig Once conversation if it is scheduled to be back on Monday’s agenda. Here are my comments and questions for you and your staff, plus a bit of opinion of my own.
Policy Basis for Dig Once
First, there has been some question about why we would want a Dig Once policy. I begin by pointing out that Comprehensive Plan policy ED-38 specifically says: “Encourage and support the development of technology and telecommunications infrastructure Citywide and throughout the region.” Dig Once directly addresses this policy. In addition, I note that the city’s Economic Strategy Action Plan calls upon the city to “Inventory Bellingham’s broadband technology assets to identify potential advantages and/or gaps in available infrastructure.” Again, a Dig Once policy, if well written, helps us to build on our advantages and close gaps in the available infrastructure, by providing conduit in more locations with minimal effort.
The PW staff memo outlines three other reasons for a Dig Once policy. As I indicated at the last meeting, I think there are other significant reasons as well, that are mutually reinforcing and overlapping. I identify at least two broad goals.
The first is to of broadband to the entire city, and a Dig Once policy accomplishes this by reducing the cost of network development for all parties, public and private. It’s a win-win. Put simply, a Dig Once policy will ensure that conduit is installed when it is cheapest and easiest. Then, it is a simple mater of running fiber cables through the empty conduit when the time comes, quickly and cheaply. This is a benefit to every kind of network operator or utility, and opens up opportunities that are otherwise beyond smaller entities. It lowers the threshold, and increases the opportunity for beneficial competition.
The second broad goal is to across the city. Under the current system, each network provider invests in system development only where the return is great enough to justify the cost, or where there is no other choice. As a consequence, some areas are better served than others. Lower income and lower density residential areas in particular are not as likely to be served by high bandwidth technologies. A Dig Once policy would encourage digital network development more broadly, and in areas that would otherwise not be as financially attractive to develop.
I’d like these two goals to be recognized in any written policy.
I note, in passing, that an open-access community broadband system could advance equity goals much further.
1. - On the agenda bill, there is a fiscal impact statement of $300,000. Can you please explain. In the memo, under “Additional Administrative Actions,” there is a bullet list of seven items. It seems to me that PW is already required or committed to doing the first five, maybe even six. Those activities are needed whether or not we have a Dig Once policy in place. The seventh bullet point also seems to be something the City needs to do, regardless. How much of the expenses in the fiscal impact note refer to these activities that we are already committed to doing?
The Dig Once policy is mostly just that — a policy, with the accompanying rules to carry out the policy. It seems to me that the majority off the cost would simply be staff time, to make sure that construction projects install the conduit as required. Aren’t city staff already overseeing projects to ensure compliance with development regulations? How much additional staff time could it take?
2. - The memo defines a minimum speed, but I wonder if that is the right approach. Our goal should not be to build to today’s minimum standard, but to anticipate and plan for tomorrow’s needs and technology as much as we can. We know the minimum is already below standard in many areas. The minimum is nowhere near the Gigabit networks that are drawing economic development interest. I don’t want us to aim too low. Our conduit needs to be sized according to our aim. Luckily, we don’t need very big conduit, but we should not plan for minimum bandwidth either. Just a guess: 4x 288-strand cables in a 2” OD conduit?
3. - The memo suggest a minimum of two conduits, one for City’s own use and one for potential use by other users. I agree. But what size? That is a key question, and it is not answered. We need to build in room for future growth (see above), and for multiple users wishing to use the same conduit. The memo says the conduit “shall be sized based on anticipated demand in compliance with standards set by the Department.” That needs to be explained a bit more, please. We need to have a clear understanding of the goals to be achieved, before we can set size standards, and those goals are set by the policy makers. The memo says that leasing of space in the second conduit will be determined if it is “in the best interests of the public.” That’s a policy decision, and the Comprehensive Plan already says that it is in the best interest of the public to develop telecommunications infrastructure citywide. I think we already have the answer to that question.
4. - The memo says that the PW Director may exempt individual projects when its impractical or makes little sense. In general, I agree, and it is appropriate that this be handled administratively. However, two of the considerations are lack of current connectivity and isolated locations. These exemptions could undermine the purpose of the policy if low-connectivity areas remain low connectivity on the justification that the area is low connectivity. It could be a circular argument, unless we look well beyond the current state of low connectivity to the decades to come. A good Dig Once policy is all about planning ahead, which means looking beyond current conditions. How can that be reflected in the guidelines to the PW Director?
5. - Certainly it makes sense that smaller projects and very short runs can be exempted from the requirement — although it might still be agood thing to do, perhaps it does not need to be a requirement. However, the parameters in the memo seem to exempt far too many projects. The result is that the Dig Once policy may have virtually no effect, since it may be confined to the largest arterials where we are likely to already have conduit and cable installed. If the Dig Once policy does not apply widely, it will not serve the purpose of advance the reach of existing networks. The majority of the “hard work” in any network is the smaller, final branchings that reach onto the neighborhoods and into smaller commercial pockets. If we set the Dig Once parameters wrong, these areas will never be served. I think it is important to realize that conduit is installed in many new developments, by popular demand from new residents and utility providers. The final branchings are already there, in these newest subdivisions.
a. - The memo suggest 1000 linear feet as a minimum distance for a road or storm/sewer project. I think that’s too long, and I would look for a number more like 500-600 (three blocks?) This would encompass the side streets, not just the main trunk lines.b. - The memo suggest that the Dig Once policy would apply only for projects involving water/sewer mains with a nominal diameter of 12” or greater, and would apply only to storm drainage mains with a nominal diameter of 18” or larger. This seems quite large. I’d like to see a map of which parts of our system involve lines this size, and which parts are left out. Does this parameter exclude 40% of the system, or 80%, or?? What size limit would include most of the system? What does that look like? By limiting the policy only to the largest pipes, the resulting network will be necessarily simpler and less extensive, and therefore less useful in reaching customers. Our water/sewer systems are great examples of an extensive network, but if we set the cut-off too high, we won’t be taking advantage of that fact.
6. - At the end of the memo, there is mention of Gigabyte fiber run through the sewer system. Apparently, in some communities where there is no available conduit (because there was no Dig Once policy to put it there!), so the best option is running shielded fiber in sewer mains. I’d like to hear more about this. Anacortes has been poorly served by broadband, and the City’s solution has been to use a system that runs optical fiber inside the City’s main water supply line leading from the mainland out to the peninsula. Overnight, this has made the City a major player in broadband for their community.
Finally, I read a comment letter that suggest a small but important change to the language in one section. The memo says that the second conduit would be available for future leasing “to private broadband service providers.” The suggestion is to broaden that a bit to “to any licensed ISP.” Perhaps it might say, “to any qualified network operator”? I don’t know what the best language might be. The idea, however, is simple. We want to make the public resource — pre-positioned conduit — available widely and cheaply, in order maximize the benefit, and to maximize available services and the number of provider options. Our goal, in my view, should not be to adopt a policy that favors the larger, established broadband service providers.
I look forward to the discussion, and to the eventual implementation of the Bellingham Dig Once policy.
Bellingham City Council
Representative, Ward 6
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