Getting What You Pay For

$3.5 million Point Roberts Broadband project: is it worth it?

$3.5 million Point Roberts Broadband project: is it worth it?


One of the projects I have been very excited about is the broadband project being rolled out, in part, by the PUD in Point Roberts. However, after years of dealing with the PUD and our institutions in general, I decided to hold my applause until I did some research. What I found was that the PUD and Whatcom County have lied to us about Point Roberts and their fiber projects in general. In short, after spending $3.5 million, Point Roberts will be nothing like Anacortes or Mount Vernon, or Hillsboro, Oregon, or Chattanooga, TN. They all have public fiber, with lightening-fast, to-the-premises fiber networks. Here, what they’re proposing is mostly just an add-on to old, obsolete, cable-TV cabling. To get a visual, think of hooking a 4” water pipe (fiber-optic cable) to a straw (Point Roberts’ old Delta Cablevision cable). 

This article is based on an article in the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, conversations with the PUD’s general manager (who refused to answer specifics), and time spent poring over public record requests,  which the PUD has made the only way to get any level of transparency. The only exception being when the PUD’s broadband specialist Andrew Entrikin admitted to me yesterday that, “there is no plan for Point Roberts yet, no construction has started, and no materials have been ordered.” Funny that Cascadia Daily News, ILSR, and others made it sound like there was progress. It’s almost like they just printed whatever they were told by the PUD without doing any investigation.

Let’s look at what they claim vs. the facts.

Claim: The PUD is working on public broadband!

Fact: This is a political ruse to make candidates we should replace seem like they are working in the public interest. Yes, this will be better than nothing and a handful of people that have never been connected before may get connected to obsolete connections. It is far from the county-wide commitment to a public-fiber network we’ve needed for decades now. In fact, it is a pitiful amount of progress given the amount of time the PUD, Port and County have had to act on this issue.    

Claim: The PUD is building a dark fiber network in Point Roberts. (Dark fiber, sometimes known as unlit fiber, refers to fiber optic cables that have been laid underground but do not yet have service or traffic. Dark fiber may be leased from the service provider.)

Fact: The PUD is building a mostly aerial dark fiber network in Point Roberts that will reach many customers. However, the one provider on the network is backing it up, or backhauling, by old, non-fiber cable, so it is NOT a full fiber system (see above visualization). Also, the PUD GM refuses to provide details, like the fiber count, and so far, there are no standards for pricing or leasing by the PUD. 

A note on aerial infrastructure and power:
Due to the electrical-caused wildfires we’ve seen in recent years, I raised concerns with Chris Heimgartner, the PUDs general manger, about using aerial infrastructure for their public power and other projects as he plans and seems to insist on. I cited several articles that outlined a half-dozen wildfires in California caused by aerial power infrastructure. I reminded him of the drought in our region and the potential for wildfires here caused by electrical cabling. Mr. Heimgartner totally blew these concerns off, saying he, “…doesn’t know what I’m talking about.” I wonder if Hawaii Electric is still patting themselves on the back for all of that “money they saved” with aerial cabling over the years before it contributed to catching 2,170 acres of Maui on fire and killing at least 114 people. Over 1,000 more people remain unaccounted for.

Claim: Several providers are interested in providing services on the PUD’s network.

Fact: Only one provider is interested in the proposed PUD Open-Access network in Point Roberts, PointNET, and this quote from the Point Roberts paper “All Point Bulletin,” confirms their virtual monopoly against the public interest. “The (service) areas chosen would avoid any conflict with private providers such as Whidbey Telecom.”  

Further, PointNET has made it very clear they are using cable TV lines for backhaul. They said as much in the same “All Point Bulletin” article. “They will be utilizing infrastructure originally constructed by Delta Cablevision which formerly offered cable television wired directly to homes throughout the Point.” So bottom line: millions of dollars are being spent on glorified, but obsolete, cable connections with some fiber attached to them. This is very much like the poor Comcast service we receive in Bellingham. If you ask Comcast they will remind you that their network is “fiber-backed” but we all know how awful their service is, so having a complete fiber system really does make a difference. 

Claim: $3.15 million in grants from the American Rescue Plan, and $350,000 from county funding is being spent on this project.

Fact: This is true. Without setting any real standards for pricing, performance, or reliability, a total of $3.5 million is being spent on this project.

Claim: Some of the money will be spent on backhaul.

Fact: This is false. Chris Heimgartner says all backhaul will be the responsibility of the internet service providers, ISPs, that lease from the PUD. So, the ISP can literally put two paperclips into a turd, call it backhaul, and that will be good enough to qualify for a PUD lease. In fact, using old copper cable is kind of equivalent to that.

Claim: Andrew Entrikin says they expect to be able to serve some of the 14,000 unserved homes in our region eventually.

Fact: But will it be the biggest bang for our buck? The next round of state funding is years away. The PUD and county can fund projects on their own, but Satpal kills anything that competes with WAVE and big telecom. For example, at least three community projects under $150K were presented to the PUD and county that would provide fiber-to-home networks with proper fiber backhaul. The PUD and Port did not fund any of them. One homeowner even took out a loan against his own home to build his network after being left out in the cold by the PUD, Port, state, and county. 
The PUD champions WAVE and Comcast as backhaul for most projects. WAVE charges $900 a month/gigabit and $35,000 or more just for hook up. This is about 13 times more than similar service in Anacortes, and 40 times more in hook-up fees. These rates scream that the PUD should have built public backhaul in Whatcom County, including Point Roberts, and acted as a provider themselves. With the resources available in Skagit County, i.e. a partnership with the City of Mount Vernon or Skagit PUD, it would be easy to do and would improve our county for centuries to come. 

Claim: Whidbey Telecom is installing $11.8 million in undersea cabling to provide better service, including to Point Roberts 

Fact: We’ll have to wait and see. My guess is their connections will be more like the pretend Gigabit connections from CenturyLink and Ziply than real fiber connections. At least they’re going underground. Our PUD’s general manager is obsessed with aerial infrastructure although the main reason we lose service is due to high winds and vegetation, like trees falling on cable. Also, aerial cabling has a shorter lifespan than underground cabling. In my neighborhood, a PSE pole came down next to one of my neighbor’s homes, nearly destroying it. Three poles on the block were then replaced;  the cost was around $50K per pole. So aerial isn’t less expensive than underground infrastructure, especially in the long run. It is more dangerous, less reliable, and it’s an eyesore. A firefighter also reminded me that they would like the poles removed because of the number of injuries and deaths they cause when involved in motor-vehicle accidents.

Claim: The middle mile network will benefit Blaine School District. ("Middle mile" connects local networks to major networks.)

Fact: In a very negligible way this is true. What Blaine schools, and the entire county, really need is a county-wide fiber network so they can take better advantage of the state-provided K-20 network in Olympia and more. Bellingham schools use this network. The county also needs FTTP (fiber to the premises) connections that will cost less than $70 a month; we should provide free fiber connections to low-income school children like they do in Chatanooga. We need the PUD to provide real connections to students in Blaine, not just say that Blaine may be in a little  better shape because some of the infrastructure improvements could help them, maybe. We need a real commitment. We need the PUD to commit to being a provider and running fiber to homes.

What should have happened?

The PUD should have used this funding to build out fiber backhaul to Point Roberts and become its provider. They have a broadband specialist and the equipment needed to do it,  plus, community volunteers who are willing to help. This PUD could have guaranteed the best services at the lowest prices. 

Instead, they protected WAVE and big telecom. Consider: there is only one provider on this new network, PointNET, so the PUD is essentially providing them with a network and vowing not to compete. Then PointNET and the PUD committed to not competing with Whidbey Telecom. All of which is good for the telecoms, but bad for the residents who paid taxes for the infrastructure. The PUD claims that because it’s Open-Access, other providers can jump on it, but that is highly unlikely for a market the size of Point Roberts and they’re not running cabling to most of Point Roberts anyway.

How this project can be saved and how other PUD projects should be approached.

In the end I want everyone in Whatcom County to have the infrastructure they need and deserve. Previous PUD projects have failed because of the same kind of half-assed approach we see here. Here is what the PUD needs to do:

1. Install public fiber backhaul so county residents can hook-up to affordable backhaul and have a real alternative to the big telecoms and WAVE. A joint Port/PUD data-center would be a good idea too.

2. Demand that ISPs hooking up to their network have fiber backhaul and finally admit that DSL and cable are obsolete and that wireless and satellite are, at best, extensions of fiber and not a substitute for an FTTP connection.

3. Hire a general manger with a sense of commitment and responsibility to the entire community, even those of us who don’t represent fossil fuel interests and PSE.  

4. Vote for commissioners with that same sense of commitment. The only one who seems to engage with the public is Atul Deshmane. Jaime Arnett and Christine Grant only want you to agree with everything they say. This is not useful discourse. Government represents a wide range of people, so our elected officials need to be able to engage with all of them regardless of their personal beliefs. 

5. Fund a real testing project based on RRUL network load testing and set a performance standard based on the results from that project. Here is how RRUL is different than the browser based testers the telecoms and state insist you use. As requested by Kaylee Galloway and Tyler Byrd, I provided a proposal to the Port, PUD, City and County governments to test 1,000 sites for only $11,000. Satpal killed the proposal and spent $100,000 on an inaccurate internet browser-based study instead. Ken Bell of the Port said he didn’t want to do it because of his personal dislike of some of the people that would work on the much more accurate RRUL testing project. I suspect the real reason it was killed has to do with campaign donations and other corruption.  

6. The PUD and county need to get past their partiality for public-private partnerships and corporate welfare. The PUD should provide public infrastructure and act as a provider. They should compete directly with other telecoms. Point Roberts is small enough that it is a perfect place for the PUD to act as a provider. 

7. The PUD, Port, City and County should adopt the standards set forth in the Broadband Strategy Document. It asks that we meet the standards of other communities that have public infrastructure; they are the standards most of the developed world already enjoys.

About Jon Humphrey

Citizen Journalist • Bellingham • Member since May 23, 2017

Jon Humphrey is currently a music educator in Bellingham and very active in the community. He also has decades of professional IT experience including everything from support to development. He [...]

Comments by Readers

Randy Petty

Oct 11, 2023

Jon, I’m looking for a place to start in discovering any programs the county may have to help with rural broadband.  Out near Agate Bay my area has ( leaving out Starlink) Centurylink DSL or in some cases Astound cable internet.   DSL is, of course, quite slow and cable extensions down side streets can be expensive or not available unless you are quite close to a pole on the main street.

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