Lilliquist Tries to Change the Past

Councilman Lilliquist tries to rewrite history in Bellingham’s war over internet fiber.

Councilman Lilliquist tries to rewrite history in Bellingham’s war over internet fiber.

• Topics: Bellingham, Open Government,

As you may have noticed in the comments of my previous article on NWCitizen, Michael Lilliquist has been attacking my latest Comcast article. He is pretending I have not compiled evidence of the City of Bellingham’s misconduct over the years. He is trying to re-write history, hoping you haven’t been paying attention over the last five years. He is especially hoping you don’t remember that the city has, for over a decade, had an existing, publicly-owned, citizen-paid-for, fiber-optic network that they have not used to the greatest benefit of the citizens even during the pandemic.

The truth is, I could have written a 30 page article covering improprieties ranging from public record request violations to COB’s refusal to release even basic information regarding the existing network—even though most of it could be released without any security risk and we even offered to sign NDAs. Instead, I decided to stick mostly with recent updates in this article.

We should be way past playing games by now. The COB needs to stop screwing around with these critical resources during a pandemic and let us get to work helping our community instead. Maybe a more transparent, well-respected organization like the PUD should take over the Broadband Advisory Group and make this a county-wide advisory group. After all, from here to Skagit County, and even state-wide, we could really benefit from sharing resources like data centers, comprehensive load testing programs, fiber, expertise, and more.

Council member Lilliquist.
Council member Lilliquist.

Michael Lilliquist is trying to rewrite history and pretend there is no evidence of COB misconduct in relation to broadband over the years. Both he and Public Works Director Eric Johnston are desperately hoping you will forget all the history surrounding this issue since I’ve been working on it and writing about it. Aside from the mountains of solidly-researched details I’ve put in my articles, below are some recent e-mail highlights that are part of the public record.

Nearly a year ago, shortly after the March 23rd lockdown, council member Hannah Stone, PUD Commissioner Deshmane, and I met with Mayor Fleetwood. The mayor talked about how he was going to form a group soon. At first he, like Lilliquist during the Linville administration, saw no problems with moving ahead on Dig Once and Open Access policies, since both ideas seemed common-sense and had been discussed for years. Unfortunately, they instead released their useless “conduit ordinance,” which had almost no information in it about how they install conduit, nor any clear policy goals. Consequently, they didn’t push Eric to move quickly on Dig Once and Open Access.

So a year ago, they were going to form a group, “soon.” I would like to note that the COB has finally started interviewing people for the Broadband Advisory Group (BAG) as of only a few days ago. But it will be at least February before their first meeting. In the meantime, a year passed while people struggled without the fiber resources to help cope with being forced online by the pandemic. And it has been over a year since Mayor Fleetwood, who committed to taking action on fiber during his campaign, was sworn into office. Still, because of manipulation by the city, there is a real risk this group will not turn out any functional policies. Or, like the Climate Action Task Force, will turn out great recommendations which the COB will either largely ignore, or implement poorly.

The Fleetwood administration is doing almost exactly what the Linville administration did: using the homeless as a shield. They say they can’t work on problems like broadband because they’re dealing with homelessness. But in the end, they aren’t doing much about that either. The homeless, of course, use public wi-fi to do things like search for jobs, file for unemployment, participate in telemedicine and much more. Or at least they try to. In fact, our libraries noted an increase in the use of external Access Points they installed a few weeks after the first lockdown, thanks to help from the state and Friends of the Library especially at the main branch when many of the homeless were camped at City Hall. The COB, on the other hand, had an entire publicly owned fiber-optic network available, with expert volunteers willing to help, and a huge public works and IT staff, but they decided to sit on their hands. Meanwhile, places like Mason County PUD #3 worked quickly to make their public network available to all, using their resources for the benefit of their people.

Perhaps even more frustrating is that COB had excellent, already proven documents to work from and the “Community Proposed Dig Once Policy” also covered Open Access. It is based on the Mount Vernon Conduit Ordinance and the South San Francisco Dig Once Policy. We provided it to them three times. But actually getting things done doesn’t seem to be a priority, so it’s equally likely they will again drag this conversation out as long as possible, trying to get BAG members to fold to the whims of big telecom. Truth is, we may never see a real policy. It is most likely they will come up with one that provides corporate welfare, like they currently do for AT&T and T-Mobile at the Sehome Hill Tower. The city’s ultimate goal may be to continue the pretense that the big telecoms are providing adequate service, regardless of the facts. Sadly, even after the pandemic made our pathetic broadband situation impossible for any reasonable, connected official to ignore, they held their pro-big telecom position.

The broadband group was supposed to be formed by October 1st—at the latest. In this email from October 29th, from the public record, Michael Lilliquist acknowledges that Eric still wants to include big telecom, even after my article exposed big telecom involvement, see “Secret Telecom Lovers Part 2”. “In a brief conversation with Eric Johnston last month, he suggested that industry professionals with an “active” conflict of interests might be included on a less formal basis, as non-voting participants. They would not be full members. This is the same status as the reps from the Port of Bellingham and the School District. This would enable some industry perspective, but not control over outcomes and recommendations.”—Michael Lilliquist

So if they can’t have them as voting members, Eric recommends to Michael that he is still going to include them at the same level as the schools, PUD, Port and libraries. But it’s inappropriate to put them on this group at all. As outlined in this Whatcom Watch article by Dr. Kevin Bardosh, “Community owned fiber-optic networks are not the most profitable option, (thereby) putting the interests of corporations like Comcast, Verizon, CenturyLink and AT&T at odds with community owned fiber infrastructure.”

Big telecoms can always make presentations if their knowledge is truly needed, but with so many community members having expertise, without conflicts of interest, there is no need to go to the telecoms for expertise. In fact, a Comcast rep. like Vincent Buys doesn’t have the skills to be of much use, unless you want to listen to someone talk about how great they think Comcast is. Eric is also advocating that if someone has retired from WAVE, CenturyLink, or Comcast, they can still be an active member even though their loyalty will inevitably be to that corporation. Naturally, some people will have ties to the telecoms, but we should require that their consideration for group membership demands they be retired and no longer invested in the companies.

In my interview for the BAG this week, Eric confirmed that he has indeed appointed four representatives from the biggest telecoms in Bellingham. He referred to them as corporate partners, and insisted they had a right to be there. Really?! They didn’t pay for the public fiber network, the citizens did, they don’t need it to be expanded for future use, entities like the schools, police, fire services, and libraries do. So why should big telecom have any say in what we do with our public resources?

In another email, Lilliquist admits that Eric has been ignoring Dig Once for over 2 years. “I have not seen a revised dig one policy from staff since I criticized the last draft about two years ago.” He is referring to the policy I wrote about in “COB Produces Elementary School Level Dig Once Draft.” This “policy” took over two years to produce and was a corporate welfare document aimed at making the public pay a second time for infrastructure the telecoms had already been given money to install, but they stole instead. Remember the adage? “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

Common sense policies like Dig Once and Open Access, called “conduit ordinances,” are used in Mount Vernon and could have been instituted here at any point over the last five years. Unfortunately, Eric ignored it in favor of a pretend conduit ordinance. When pushed on this issue by City Council, Eric used the advisory group to again delay putting the Dig Once and Open Access policies into place. In an email from September 9th, he states, ”However until the Broadband Advisory Workgroup completes their work, until the public discussion are complete and until the Council establishes new policy, the adoption of additional requirements on public and private projects would be premature.”

Lilliquist sided with Eric on this. They pretended that there had been no discussion over the last five years, that thousands of citizens hadn’t signed petitions demanding better access. In reality, there are currently three petitions, with a total of about 5,000 signatures, demanding a public fiber-optic network. The idea also has the support of many major political groups including the Whatcom Democrats, some Republicans, the Whatcom DSA, Indivisible Bellingham, and many more. With such a clear desire from the people for this utility, one that is simple to implement, it’s disturbing that the COB is still acting like demand doesn’t exist.

This is classic Eric and Michael: hoping, once again, that you’ll all forget they’ve been dragging their heels for five years on creating common sense broadband policies; forget that Eric, especially, fought for years against forming the group; and then forget that he just filled it with special interests. If I hadn’t reviewed the applications, they may have gotten away with making them voting members. They may still get away with it.

Several years ago, in a meeting with Eric Johnston and the former director of public works, Ted Carlson, they tried to blow off the need for public fiber by saying they were going to “wait for wireless.” That single statement displayed a spectacular and fundamental lack of understanding of how networks work: put simply, all wireless networks must be backed up by fiber. Is ignorance the simple reason we still have no resolution in place?

There is a mountain of evidence showing that the COB dragged their feet and dropped the ball for years and they’re still not taking it seriously. Do they simply not understand the magnitude of the issue? Now, they are trying to say the pandemic is slowing them; but one reason they’re so busy with the pandemic is that they didn’t work on crucial issues like broadband before it struck. Broadband is critical because it gives people access to jobs, telemedicine, information, education, entertainment and much more; the pandemic accelerated our immediate need, and foreshadows our future needs.

Michael Lilliquist is hoping we forget about all the delays and corruption surrounding this issue over the years, so he can rewrite history. He is pretending we didn’t really discuss this topic before Seth took office and now, with COVID, they’re all obfuscating and saying Seth has had to make other issues a priority. But Michael was there from the start, he knows better.

Technology aside, their job is to listen to and respond to citizens, yet they have ignored literally thousands of citizens who have tried to discuss their concerns about community technology. I have had personal discussions with council members who admit that Dig Once makes total sense and say they can’t understand why we’re waiting so long to enact it. The exception to this is Dan Hammill, who hasn’t even bothered to weigh in on the topic in over half a decade. In short, the overarching policy at a city-wide level seems to be to ignore citizens whenever it’s inconvenient to listen.

During my incredibly odd interview with Eric this week, he also outlined a virtually worthless performance standard designed to make it look like our existing connections are more than adequate, even though we know they’re not. He is using a standard he calls, “100 Mbits available.” Since this sounds good on the surface, he is hoping that you don’t look into it. But saying something is available is very different from providing consistent service under load. The “available standard,” if you can call it a standard, simply means that, theoretically, 100 Mbit (download only) service is periodically available on your block in the neighborhood.

This theoretical “standard” also does not take into consideration whether you can afford to pay extra for it or not, whether it holds up to testing, whether it provides enough upload speed for Zoom, or any other useful metric. If they can test the connection for a split second, using something like the inaccurate internet tester, and it says 100 Mbits, but then drops down to 1/8th of its speed, they will still consider you are being served by 100 Mbits.

It's the bandwidth, stupid.
It’s the bandwidth, stupid.

They also will not take into consideration how different technologies work. For example, they will not consider the fact that if you’re on a Comcast connection you are sharing your bandwidth with your entire neighborhood via neighborhood hubs, making whatever speed they quote you largely meaningless. I will close this article with the standard we need to demand instead of this imaginary standard Lilliquist and Eric are pushing. Sadly, this “available standard” is what the state is pushing too.

Because of this fiasco, I have committed to a new personal policy: I will not endorse another candidate. I will meet with them, educate them, and do what’s right for the community, but I will not endorse. Candidates with enough honor to risk endorsing rarely make it past the primaries.

Best-case scenario, the Broadband Advisory Group will start meeting in February, over a year after Seth was sworn in, promising to do something about fiber. If we’re lucky, we might see some action by May—over a year after the March 23rd lockdown. During that year, our lack of adequate broadband access kept many of our kids from accessing online classes, has sent them back to school prematurely, has exposed the community to increased COVID risk for no good reason, and has kept people from job searches and telemedicine and…

So I ask Michael, what is the point of having power if you won’t use it to help your community during a pandemic? How can people trust you? How do candidates like you keep getting endorsements? Let alone, win elections.

What can you do? You can write to the City Council, mayor, County Council, Port, schools, libraries and PUD asking them to put a real standard into place. We need a 100 Mbit symmetrical fiber-optic connection, with less than 50 ms of latency, that holds up to an rrul network load test within 5%, for at least 10 minutes. That level of service should be available at every premises in the city and the county, as soon as possible. It should also be at the same pricing that Anacortes charges for fiber, which is $70 a month for a Gigabit connection.

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 [...]

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