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Public Internet Fiber for Bellingham: A Local Answer to Net Neutrality Loss

By On
• In Bellingham,

I am happy to announce that on November 13th Mark Gardner, the city’s policy analyst, finally released his report about public fiber to the council. Gardner presented this report at the 1p.m. meeting and his report was followed by a Skype meeting with Christopher Mitchell of Community Broadband Networks. This was a historic occasion as it was the first Skype meeting the city has held in council chambers. I attended both meetings and spoke briefly at the 7p.m. meeting.

Gardner’s report was objective, but as we expected, the evidence for the need to establish a policy that requires the city to install multi-user conduit whenever a road repair is done, and grants ISPs access to city owned rights of way, known as a Dig Once Policy was overwhelming. The need to put some public fiber in the conduit was also overwhelming, but not as easy to sell to all of the members.

At the 7p.m. meeting the council agreed to do two very important things.

1. They directed Public Works to locate all the fiber cable that is already in town. Months ago, several of us suggested this mapping was critical regardless of their personal beliefs about public fiber. It was obvious the city simply hadn’t done a good job documenting where all of their resources were and had more capacity than they were stating. This in itself caused everyone unnecessary headaches and occasional outages. Yet in March 2016, only a few months after one of the bigger public fiber providers from Mount Vernon and I had a meeting with the city’s Public Works Director Ted Carlson about public fiber, Carlson told the council in a publicly available memo and at the council meeting that, “The City system was not built with the intention of providing commercial services, and therefore lacks the resiliency and redundancy needed to meet the needs and expectations associated with private use.” One wonders how anyone can make a statement like that when, in the same document, they admit that an accurate inventory of the fiber has not been made. The truth is, they simply didn’t know where fiber had been laid and were hoping no one would ask them to find out, even though, for the past several years, other providers had asked for access to the network. At this point, it’s important to have real accountability since our government has been less than honest with us. It would be prudent to have an outside firm, with no ties to the city of Bellingham, do an audit of the resources we have.

2. The council finally committed to evaluating a Dig Once Policy in Bellingham. This was a big win in the face of resistance from the city. Establishing a Dig Once Policy is about 70% of what we need to do to get the ball rolling with Public Fiber. Ted Carlson’s arguments against this idea were provided to the council and mayor as part of a publicly available memo presented at the March meeting. At this meeting, Ted Carlson claimed, “they had not received a clearly articulated argument for why the City would pursue community fiber…” This is not true. At the aforementioned December 2016 meeting, a provider from Mount Vernon and I met with Carlson and others from the city, where we presented ideas, suggestions and documents outlining clear arguments for every part of the project. The documents were provided in e-mail messages to the COB prior to the meeting. For example, I recommended that they follow the Mount Vernon Dig Once Policy with some modifications, like replacing 2” conduit with 3” conduit throughout the document. We also provided success stories from other communities like the Tulalip Tribe’s community based fiber project where they saved themselves $2.7 million dollars by doing their own fiber installs. I confirmed these numbers at the March 22nd, 2016 Seattle Broadband meeting when a spokesman for the Tribe described the project to us. Inspired by the Tribe’s story, I also offered my services as a volunteer and even offered to put together a team of volunteers to help lower costs. This offer was ignored.

Please keep in mind that a Dig Once policy would cover installing multi-user conduit, which would allow many new ISPs to provide services via this conduit. These new providers would include ISP CO-Ops and other local Net-Neutral options. On that front, most council members still prefer an Open Access approach to Public Fiber where the providers would be doing most of the heavy lifting including everything from repairs to taking phone support calls. This removes almost all risk and cost from the city other than installing conduit and hopefully a bit of fiber with it.

What was very confusing is that council member April Barker, who was on the CenturyLink team that the city established to help setup an agreement with CenturyLink which concluded with the 7/24 meeting where the council voted unanimously to approve CenturyLinks expansion of PRISM services into Bellingham, did as much as possible to hold up the adoption of a Dig Once Policy..

April also stated that the staff needed a clear goal of what they were to do, implying again that they didn’t have one. I approached her after the meeting to clarify that the staff had already been provided the appropriate documents but she seemed uninterested; I moved on to talk to Michael Lilliquist instead. I am now working, as a volunteer, on a Dig Once policy to present again. This is really a job the city should do, or pay a consultant to do, but I don’t want this project to be scrapped because someone pretends they didn’t receive adequate documentation or a clear outline of expectations. Also, I don’t want high-priced consultants to claim the project costs ten times more to do here than in any other city.

The good news is, both Pinky Vargas and Roxanne Murphy, along with long-time supporter Michael Lilliquist, backed the idea with statements like, “Fiber is inevitable,” and “I want to set the pace with this, not follow.” In the end, the whole council voted to support the investigation, but I don’t understand why April Barker, often known for supporting social equity and justice, is so reluctant to support an inexpensive project that would guarantee access for all to education and good jobs, as well as provide a permanent solution to maintaining net-neutrality. For a list of other advantages, see the petition site.

Overall this is potentially good news, but only if our officials are actually taking it seriously. Unfortunately, the meeting ran over and they were not able to ask a lot of questions about wireless networks which have largely been over-hyped in their capabilities. Many look at wireless as a simple solution to broadband problems, that has little physical intervention but that is not true.

This is no doubt partially due to the fact that our current FCC director, Ajit Pai worked for Verizon and is pushing wireless. In fact, most of the documentation out there supporting private anti-net neutral connections, including wireless, is supported in the background by big telecoms. The funny thing is that whether you’re for or against wireless, you need fiber to hook up to the wireless . In short, you need fiber to do wireless well! Actually, it’s more accurate to say that you need fiber to do anything broadband related well, and making it public will ensure that the most people get the most benefit from it. Hell, even the Space X 1G low orbital satellite network will relay to dishes hooked up to fiber.

Here is a short list of questions that the council really needs to ask of an unbiased researcher such as myself or Christopher Mitchell that they ran out of time to ask:

1. What are the advantages of an FTTH (Fiber To The Home) network over wireless? What are the potential hazards of wireless?

(Note: Even the FCC says that enough studies have NOT been done on the effects of wireless on children, meaning even fewer have been done on the effects on other animals and our environment in general). One FCC report focuses on personal devices themselves, and another outlines potential problems with the dishes.

As an important aside, there is a new Verizon tower going in in Sudden Valley under very shady circumstances. The sad thing is that the coverage map shows that there will be little improvement over the old tower, but that is a topic for another article, that should be written by someone from Sudden Valley.

2. How do we lower the cost of connecting to the network initially? How do these costs compare to connecting to Comcast, CenturyLink, or other private providers for the first time? Remember that although you may gasp at hearing that an initial connection to fiber is $1,200 this was not far from the truth for initial connections to other providers on copper lines in the not too distant past. The reason it’s usually not that high now is that the inferior copper infrastructure is in a lot of places, making the cost of connection lower. Hence, the cost of connection for fiber should go down as the network is built. There are also some ways to subsidize connections for non-residential customers for economic improvement, etc. but expanding on that would also result in another article.

3. What are the advantages to a Democratic society to having Net-Neutral broadband over Anti-Net Neutral providers? How is this strengthened by having local providers and more local self-reliance? Recent events in the news have shown how passionate most Americans are about retaining Net-Neutrality, but the Big Telecoms still maintain that our position is alarmist. It’s time to put this issue to bed once and for all.

4. How do we assure adequate access for everyone? (Meaning at least a 50 down/10 up connection as a basic right for all citizens like the Canadians are doing, using net-neutral, preferably local, providers). This of course requires admitting that the current low-income options are inadequate and of course needs to be city and county wide. Having it in a few pockets here and there isn’t good enough. If the network isn’t built-out with a real plan it will die a slow death.

I am trying to remain optimistic, but blowing this kind of initiative off in an elaborate way would sadly not be out of character for our current government. Remember that some gushed over CenturyLink at the 7/24 meeting. The video is available here:

Now is the time to push for a lot of signatures on the petition.

I’ll leave you with a link to a document that outlines what the cost of putting conduit in was in many other cities between 2009 and 2015. It left me wondering why the costs in Bellingham are being quoted at a much higher rate.

I will also leave you with a reminder that Nielsen’s “Law of Internet Bandwidth” says that users’ bandwidth will grow by 50% per year. This means that an investment in bandwidth can’t be a bad investment. What we really need to ask ourselves is who do we want to provide those services and who do we want to profit from it–our local community or some of the most hated companies in American history, the big telecoms?

Also, if you’d like to write to the mayor or your councils here is their contact info.

The Mayor—mayorsoffice@cob.org

City Council—ccmail@cob.org

County Council—council@co.whatcom.wa.us

Mark Gardner (policy analyst preparing the reports)—mgardner@cob.org

About Jon Humphrey

Writer • 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

David Camp

Dec 18, 2017

Thanks, Jon, for the time you have spent on this issue. For the good of all and not your own pocketbook! 

Interesting that Mr Carlson, who is very well paid from the public purse to develop public infrastructure, is rather playing dog-in-the-manger on this important project.  Disappointing.

And why has progressive Bham been left in the dust by Mount Vernon, which has had public fibre for years? At this rate Glacier will have fibre internet access before Bham.

 

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Jon Humphrey

Dec 18, 2017

Thanks David. The dog-in-the-manger reference is funny :). The original article was over 1,700 words so it had to be paired down a bit and some of the tech data removed. I’ll put some of it in this comment. There are some really odd numbers coming out of public works on this issue. I tried to get a straight answer from them on the cost of installing conduit via a public records request on a specific road repair this summer. I was oddly asked to withdraw the request and take a phone call instead. They didn’t want to put it in writing for some reason. Oddly enough, there was another writer working on a different project that needed the same data, and he was given a written response that he then shared with me. Anyway, I was verbally told that conduit cost less than $100K per block, but no one would give us a specific number. The total repair on Holly Street from Cornwall to Railroad was 1.38 Million with about 500K going just to asphalt. They city has started installing 2x2” conduit for its own use at our expense but won’t give us access to it. So let’s assume 2x2” conduit is 50K per block, there are about 8 blocks in a mile. So our Public Works Department is saying that at minimum it costs Bellingham $400K per mile to install conduit when Blaine does it for $85K per mile, and larger cities like Phoenix do it for around $100K. How can it cost 4 times more here than just about anywhere else? This isn’t New York City after all.

Also, I had to cut some of the wireless details out. The 5G spec. that the wireless only guys are pushing for largely calls for “small cells” to be installed on every street light about every block, since the wavelengths are so short, etc. the COB does pull fiber into just about every street light, but the lights do NOT have small cells installed on them. We aren’t even close to that level of infrastructure. Even if we were, all of those small cells have to be hooked up to fiber. So again, you need fiber to do anything broadband related well. There is no way around it.  https://muninetworks.org/content/wireless

If the fiber is public then everyone can benefit from it, have net-neutral communications, etc. If not, well I guess you better overpay whatever provider gets the contract for that to get your communications prioritized. It’s obvious that a public model lowers cost, creates real accountability, and makes Bellingham attractive for Next-Generation businesses. In short it helps address virtually all of our social and economic concerns. The only people that benefit from the current model are the big telecoms and their investors. We pay 10 times more for broadband than just about every other developed country. In Japan Gigabit symmetrical fiber is $25 a month.  In Kansas City it’s $70. Frankly, we’re getting screwed and it’s obvious that the current big telecom model doesn’t work. 

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David MacLeod

Dec 21, 2017

Jon, thank you for spearheading this important work!

“What we really need to ask ourselves is who do we want to provide those services and who do we want to profit from it–our local community or some of the most hated companies in American history, the big telecoms?”

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Tip Johnson

Dec 28, 2017

Link to the report is bad

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Jon Humphrey

Dec 28, 2017

The COB decided to transition to a new system recently. The actual error message from the COB website reflects that. Error reads: “The City of Bellingham is currently moving to a new meetings system…..” So you can still navigate to the report by date. It was 11/13/2017 at 1pm. Here is the link to the meeting documents using the new system https://meetings.cob.org/OnBaseAgendaOnline/Meetings/ViewMeeting?id=1368&doctype=1 However, there is no video with this archive yet. Hopefully that will change over the next few days. I will update the article to reflect this change if/when they finish their transition. 

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