Mayor Fleetwood to Pick Members of Broadband Advisory Group… Just Kidding!

Real progress on broadband and fiber optics is not what is being sold to the public by the city.

Real progress on broadband and fiber optics is not what is being sold to the public by the city.


I write to you today with a brief update on the state of broadband, and especially public fiber-optics. Thanks largely to the efforts of public broadband supporters in our community, the problems I wrote about in my last article, where Public Works Director Eric Johnston and IT Director Marty Mullholand tried to keep the Broadband Advisory Group from actually discussing broadband, were removed from the resolution by the council. In fact, at the Public Works Commission meeting this past Monday (8-31-20), members even went so far as to agree to draft a resolution in relation to 5G. Let’s extend a big “thank you” to our council for that. So things are looking up, right?

Well, sort of. You see, when I started out on this road years ago, I was warned that former Public Works Director Ted Carlson and our current director, Eric Johnston, an assistant at the time, would try every “dirty” trick possible to protect special interests. Sadly, that is still what is going on. (I’ve written about Johnston many times before, and you may recall that he was the city engineer who was fired from Oak Harbor for a willful cover-up of his department’s desecration of an ancient Salish burial site, in violation of state law.) After I applied to be on the Broadband Advisory Group, I received notification from the mayor’s office and Eric Johnston that all the recommendations for the group would be discussed with Eric by Mayor Fleetwood, before being passed to the council for final approval. So in a very real sense, our pro-big-telecom and Public-Records-Act-violating director, will still be choosing the members of the Broadband Advisory Group.

On top of this, the city has all but killed any discussion of an Open Access Policy—the policy Mount Vernon has for local net-neutral providers on its network—and further, will not allow the Broadband Advisory Group to participate in the creation of a Dig Once Policy. About two years ago, the city released a Dig Once Policy that was so bad it resulted in the NorthWest Citizen article, “COB Releases Elementary School Level Dig Once Policy.” Since then, the community has generated a much better policy based on the Mount Venron Conduit Ordinance and South San Francisco Dig Once Policy. We provided our community-generated product to the city several times. However, this week, when I requested drafts of the current documents, since the city will be discussing Dig Once on September 9th, I was told by Johnston that I am not allowed to see the documents until the 9th. Obviously, this doesn’t allow us time to review, provide suggestions, or weigh in on the documents. Since we know the documents exist, and I’ve been requesting drafts and have been blown off for years now, I made an official public records request and contacted city attorney James Erb. I have not heard back yet. Apparently, Johnston is trying to keep the community from weighing in on the policy, while trying to write a policy that won’t work in an effort to protect special interests, as he has done in the past. This policy should be developed by the Broadband Advisory Group to assure the best policy is developed with no influence from special interests.

So there you have it. Thanks to the community we’ve made some progress, but Johnston is still trying every dirty trick he can think of to maintain the status quo and prevent real progress, even during a pandemic. Please write to the mayor and council and ask them to choose members for the Broadband Advisory Group, like myself and Commissioner Deshmane, who will protect the interests of the community. Otherwise, Johnston will fill the Group with special interest representatives and it will be a sham. Also, please request that the Advisory Group be the body that approves Open Access and Dig Once policies. Do not allow this important step to be a unilateral action by the city.

I will close with this. It is important for us to recognize how deep the corruption surrounding telecom goes. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the intentionally inaccurate connection tester the state put out to protect big telecoms. I have finished developing my own load tester recently, and am working on getting it online. The schools pretended to be addressing this issue when Washington State School Superintendent Chris Reydkal pledged $8.8 million for low-income connections. However, there are a few catches. The money can only be spent on private provider connections—that are so bad they are virtually worthless, and it only covers a scattering of kids statewide These kids will have such terrible connections they will virtually be offline in comparison to wealthier kids.

Locally it’s no better. Our schools in Whatcom County are handing out inadequate wireless solutions that we know won’t meet our kids needs, and are paying approximately $30 per device, per month. This means they will be spending thousands of dollars a month for virtually worthless wireless connections. And our school’s money will be going to the same big telecom companies that are standing in the way of our progress, having attacked our first amendment rights by obstructing net-neutrality, and providing us inadequate connections for high-speed processes. How do we know? Because we’ve tested their devices and their performance is abysmal.

So why are our schools fighting for inadequate connections provided by big telecom and delaying progress on real public solutions even though they personally could fund a complete fiber network that would last 100 years with the $170 million they’ve taken from a technology levy? It all started with the governor’s speech: He assured big telecom he would have their back—right before introducing Superintendent Reydkal. That’s right, just before the state announced that broadband access was a right for all, Governor Inslee said,

...we are working with our internet providers and software leaders in our state, and other private sector partners, to connect our students and educators with what they need for teaching...”

So the State Broadband Office, the schools, the Department of Commerce, and more were directed by the governor to solve the problem, but not before giving out big corporate welfare handouts to private telecoms who will not be doing anything that will actually result in usable connections for the poor. All of this while Anacortes offers Gigabit fiber to the home for $70 a month through its municipal system. I wrote an article about the quality of these big telecom low-income connections, “Big Telecom Low Income Connections are a Joke,” and they still are a joke. In fact, our recent network load testing show connection speeds are even worse than we thought when that article was published.

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

Nicholas Sotak

Sep 05, 2020


I’ve read several of your articles over the years.  One thing I have not heard is a rationale for why Bellingham officials are resistant to a highspeed public fiber network.  I like to think, albeit maybe naively at times, that our elected leaders and professional staff have the community’s best interests in mind.  It’s frustrating to think I’ll be stuck with Xfinity, paying high prices for questionable service, for the foreseeable future. I appreciate you calling attention to this and hope our elected leaders are listening.  This is an important issue and it will certainly affect who I vote for in the future.


Dick Conoboy

Sep 06, 2020


In response to questions like yours the answer is portrayed in this video which I enjoy posting to no end.  Click here.


Jon Humphrey

Sep 06, 2020

Thanks, everyone for your interest and especially for the Cabaret clip. Nicholas, it would have been very professional, and prudent, for the city to release a proper statement as to their position on broadband over the years. The truth is that their statements change all of the time. One week they say the network isn’t robust enough for public use, then they release a statement where they’re leasing it only to big telecoms at corporate welfare rates, then at the PUD meeting Eric Johnston said that they don’t even know who is on the network unless they cut through a cable, the next moment they’re saying it’s extensive and they are improving it all of the time… The list goes on. They change their story as they see fit. Here are their primary arguments that I’ve blown out of the water many times over the years.

1. They don’t have enough staff to do it. Mount Vernon operates an Open Access Network with less staff than the COB has and has more fiber. In an Open Access Network, the city does almost no work, with the providers that are leasing the fiber, doing most of the heavy lifting including everything from customer service calls to maintenance. So the COB has left millions on the table over the years in leasing. If they had done this the network would have paid for itself and its own expansion. 

2. It is too expensive. A fiber network pays for itself and its own expansion in many ways. However, the COB does already lease fiber to AT&T and T-Mobile. So while they’re telling local net-neutral providers like Pogozone that they have to get off the network, and bully and threaten smaller entities in general, they are happy to lease it to big telecoms at corporate welfare rates. Also, a fiber network costs somewhere from $50 (Port estimate) to $160 Million (private estimate) for a county-wide network. A single high school runs around $90 million and doesn’t last as long. 

3.  The big telecoms have all the experts and we need to listen to our “corporate-partners” in the big telecoms. There are droves of scholarly documents showing this to be a false statement ( I like “Captive Audience” by Susan Crawford). Plus, the big telecoms get the undivided attention of the COB while experts in the community are screamed at by our public works director behind closed doors. How do I know, Eric screamed at me for an hour once when I tried to get some details on the network. On top of that, while Eric swears that he doesn’t talk to the telecoms, I have thousands of recorded communications between the COB and them just over the last few years. Apparently Eric doesn’t consider thousands of e-mails to be communications. 

4. They routinely lie to the public and violate the public records act. In fact, last week while Eric Johnston was assuring the public that no 5G permits had been filed for I received documents from city attorney James Erb confirming that a company called Microlite filed for a permit in 2018 and then removed it last week. Since we have open public records requests covering that span, we know that he lied to the public in his statements last Monday. 

5. You have choice and Bellingham is better wired up than San Francisco. This is total BS. South San Francisco has a Dig Once Policy. One so good that we recommended the COB follow it. On top of that, there are many articles highlighting how the telecoms carve out territories and don’t really compete with each other. For example, CenturyLinks’ “new service” isn’t available to most, is too expensive to address the digital divide, and doesn’t perform at 1 Gigabit because it’s not a real fiber service. That’s why they put the little “up to” tag in front of their claims. Comcast’s pretend Gigabit service performs even more poorly and isn’t really available here. The private fiber in the area isn’t available to most and costs 13.5 times or more than it does in Anacortes, Chatanooga, etc. The Ports’ assessment of WAVEs resources in the county shows that they ran only half of the Mount Vernon standard for fiber and that about half of their strands are broken. Wireless doesn’t come close to competing with fiber for reliability, price per Mbit, and more. How do we know, we’ve been testing the connections with proper load tests. So in short, we have no city or county-wide solution and none of our private providers will ever address that. The small, local, net-neutral ones need public fiber to help, and the big telecoms have no interest in really improving their infrastructure. 

6. Broadband isn’t part of the pandemic response and they’ll get to it later. I think this ludicrous assumption on the part of the COB answers itself. For example, all of our schools, libraries, and other public buildings are wired up to city fiber, but the libraries are the only entity that extended access to the public during this time and they had to do it with private funding from the friends of the library and from the state. The COB wouldn’t lift a finger to help. Let’s think about this though. For example, our new $90 million high school could have easily been set up for safe, socially distanced, public internet access. Yet the schools’ tech director Kurt Gazow pushed private wireless instead, Marty (the city’s IT Director) and Eric wouldn’t commit any staff to help, and Greg Baker ignored the topic altogether. However, every school could have provided access to city fiber in parking lots, re-purposed cafeterias and more. 

7. It’s a security risk to provide information on the existing network. This simply isn’t true. Mount Vernon provides basic details on their network, like the ones we asked for, openly. Why? Because they have competent people that have secured their network and monitor it. What the COB is really saving to you here is that they don’t and that they’re the problem. This problem is easily solved with new upper-echelon staff. Besides, they are happy to share their info with AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and other big telecoms. 

There’s probably more, but I’ll stop there for now. All of these directors make at least $150K a year each. I think we can expect some expertise for what they earn or, at the very least, that they show some compassion to the communities that they serve at this time and in general. 

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