Secret Telecom Lovers

As I write this article I am reminded of two songs. The first being, “The Room Where It Happens,” from Hamilton. Which describes how meetings actually happen among our leaders, you know, when the pesky public isn’t allowed in. The other is “Secret Lovers” by Atlantic Star, since many members of our city’s upper echelon seem to be in love with the big telecoms. They know their love is wrong, but it must just feel so right that they’re willing to keep taking advantage of their true partners, the community, to please their telecom goomahs.

I also would like to note that the memo I use in this article, to again point out the many errors in the way our government and schools address technology, may seem like the wrong target, but I assure you its not. While this memo claims to address unconnected students, most of these solutions are coming too late, and are totally inadequate. Plus, the funding for these solutions is only slated to last for one year, when the need to be connected is perpetual.

This memo shows public employees of the county government reimbursing the schools for supposedly necessary expenditures in the time of the COVID-19 crisis. If our government and schools admitted that these were bandaid solutions to be used until real long-term solutions could be put into place, I might even be praising them. But the city, county and schools have no real long term plans for addressing our broadband needs. In fact, they still don’t appear to be interested in developing any, even after over four years of being beaten over the head with how much better off our community would be with real broadband solutions. And worse, all this is happening even after they have been given hundreds of millions of dollars to address the Digital Divide. They have the money, there is an obvious need, and still they don’t act in any meaningful way.

I recently asked the signers of my petition to follow up with the Port of Bellingham in an effort to find out what had happened to the fiber cable that was finally supposed to be run to Glacier. Bids were being taken on it by the Port in February. This was supposed to be the first of many fiber runs that would truly help address rural broadband connectivity issues that only fiber can help address. For an excellent overview of connection types, and why county-wide fiber is necessary to move forward, I direct you to the excellent Whatcom Watch article, “Untangling the Wires.”

Sure, we expected work on the Glacier run to be delayed due to the COVID-19 crisis, but now it looks like nothing at all is happening with it, again, because our government has been busy, again, meeting with the big telecoms at the expense of starting the work we really need to be doing to secure our future.

I contacted the Port to follow up and was stonewalled. When I learned our county executive, who has an engineering background, was pushing Starlink, I was shocked. Even after Starlink was shown to be terrible when compared to fiber, as are all satellite systems. I tried to explain to many people that week that there is no savior riding in on a 5G small cell or satellite that is going to solve our problems. We need to see fiber for what it is: critical infrastructure, and the backbone to all modern communications, as I have said many times before.

In the meantime, I also contacted the schools, including superintendents and the technology director, about the need for fiber and the need to spend some of the $170 million from the recent technology levy on fiber to low-income home connections. Since the Digital Divide has been an issues for decades, the schools were one of the first organizations I approached about the impact of technology on the environment, and broadband in general.

A week-long shutdown due to snow earlier this year that had huge economic impacts on the community, particularly our families, showed how much better off we would be if we had a fiber-optic network. But the schools were simply not interested in talking about broadband. Sure, Bellingham Public Schools wanted to give shiny laptops to kids without broadband connections, I suppose so they could use them as shiny paperweights when they got home. But they were not interested in the more important issue of broadband access. The county didn’t even want to give students the paperweights until the COIVD-19 crisis hit, and even then didn’t respond to the broadband issue in any way.

Once the pandemic hit, the schools still waited months to do anything about broadband. Now they are panicking, and providing virtually worthless connections, at great expense, to try to save face. Bellingham Public Schools is interested in covering up the fact that they didn’t use the $170 million they asked for in the technology levy in any manner even close to wisely; and the county wants to cover up the fact that they didn’t consider technology at all. But make no mistake, they were well aware: from test data we’ve sent them, from the performance of their students connectivity everyday, from the growing number of communities around us with public networks that are better connected than we are, and from the reality that the wireless connections they are providing are barely better than nothing. The fact is, some wireless technology, like big telecom 5G, is making the Digital Divide worse. But they aren’t interested in that either.

How do we know? We used real test data we had from a library hotspot to show how incredibly inadequate wireless solutions were and how any money spent on them would not only be wasted, but actually make the digital divide worse. We also used Flent, the network load tester, and an rrul test in several locations. The pics included with this article are some of the ones I have sent to the schools and government offices over the last several months. This set was taken at Bloedel Donovan Park. If connections were this bad at Bloedel, expect them to be worse for most people in the county. Sure, there will be some outliers, like people who live next to emitters, which have their own list of problems, but on the whole, county connections will be worse.

I received mixed replies. The county schools didn’t respond in any meaningful way. Bellingham Schools Technology Director Kurt Gazow didn’t want to be bothered at all. Bellingham Superintendent Greg Baker didn’t want to learn about it, even though most of the teachers seemed to get it and supported fiber. Public Works Director Eric Johnston created a fake Conduit Ordinance. The County Council and Port immediately rushed to the big telecoms to look for solutions; but since big telecoms were the cause of the problem, they had no interest in solving it. The state made a fake broadband tester, while Governor Inslee and Washington’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal made sure that schools knew they were expected to spend tax payer money for inadequate broadband connections with big telecoms, as I wrote about here. Recently, the PUD stepped up as the only entity to talk about this issue openly and propose a potential real solution, although we’ve seen no action on this front.

Of course, we also contacted city and county government officials. We’ve been doing this frequently over the past several years. The county, who normally ignores most contacts from citizens, especially about broadband, put Rud Browne on the case. At first, they tried not responding, as usual. We later learned that at the same time we were contacting them, Rud and the Port had been in meetings with big telecoms to try to give them $900,000 in tax payer money for connections they, (County Council, the county executive, and the Port) knew would be inadequate and overpriced. Why? Because the schools told the Port, county executive, and council this was what they needed. Why would the schools do this? Because they had known about and ignored the issue for so long, they decided to pretend they had been working on it. Their solution was equivalent to “giving” a poor family a car by dragging one home from the junk yard, dumping it in their yard, and saying they now had a car. They, of course, consider the problem now solved, regardless of the reality.

In June, I realized our institutions were not taking the issue seriously enough. One would think the pandemic had made the case for fiber crystal clear, but not when telecom lobbyists are afoot, and your representatives still refuse to educate themselves. However, Rud, Satpal, Deptury Executive Tyler Schreoder, and several members of the Port staff are all well-versed in broadband, so there was no excuse. On June 25th, when I pushed Rud Browne and the County Council with my concerns that a lot of funding was going specifically to Verizon for bandaid solutions, Rud’s reply was to ask me the source of my information and to tell me that CARES money couldn’t be spent on broadband. He said he was “looking into finding other funding” but didn’t respond further. The memo shows that he was flat out wrong about that when it references the CARES Act directly.

On October 4th, I received the aforementioned memo which outlined what I suspected had been going on in the background: that our schools and government officials were meeting almost exclusively with big telecoms and of course there was no discussion of Dig Once, Open Access or public broadband. In these meetings with private providers only, they gave first pick to Comcast, CenturyLink and Ziply (formerly Frontier) who ultimately did not have solutions. In the end, the schools hammered out deals for inadequate wireless devices.

The Port, county executive, and Rud split the funding entirely between wireless providers, most of them are anti-net neutral, anti-First Amendment big telecoms. It is worth mentioning, at this point, that while Rud says he supports Dig Once, and fiber down every main street, he also expressed a fondness for wireless solutions to me. Funny that almost a million dollars has been spent entirely on wireless solutions, while still no consideration has been given to public broadband. Remember: to date, neither city nor county council has received a full presentation on public broadband, openly, in council chambers. This is what is going on in Whatcom County while virtually every commuinity that has invested in public broadband is providing better, less expensive connections in perpetuity to all of their citizens. Why? Because once you have public infrastrucure in place you can provide connections simply for the cost of the equipment, in perpetuity. Again, on top of everything else, this current funding is only slated to last for one year.

They try to make the deal sound legitimate by saying they met with all the superintendents to decide how funding would be allocated. But we need to realize that the superintendents were under orders from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to spend money with the big telecoms. Also, they are not experts, and have no real interest in learning about the topic. This means that Deputy Executive Tyler Schroeder and Rud were the only ones really weighing in on the topic. So after almost 200 days of inaction, a poor, cover-up solution was agreed upon by very few people who were “in the room where it happens,” no doubt with advice from big telecoms.
The only silver lining to this cloud is that part of the funding was given to the local, net-neutral provider, PogoZone. My question is, why wasn’t all of it?

Let me remind everyone again that Washington is one of the only states that has specific laws to protect big telecoms. It’s why we’re in red on the Community Broadband Networks Map. The governor understands these laws and has made it clear that no matter how big telecoms behave, no matter how low-paying their handful of jobs, regardless of the fact that they are all headquartered out of our state, no matter what, he has their back. So there was no reason to even bother to learn about public broadband. But when the big telecoms want to sit down, talk, and receive lots of money, well no problem. Government will literally drop everything and make time for that. In fact, the city spent five years negotiating the almost useless CenturyLink deal as outlined in an interview I did on NWCitizen with Gene Knutson years ago. So instead of working on our network, and having real, measurable, city-wide results, we put up with CenturyLink for five years of paper pushing instead. That’s what your upper echelon officials do, by the way. Instead of working on our network, they literally pay our IT and Public Works directors to hold the hands of big telecom, on our dime of course. Often for years at a time as new contracts are negotiated.

It should be noted that at the same rates Mount Vernon installs conduit and fiber, the $900,000 spent on these inadequate wireless connections could have paid for almost five miles of conduit with 144-count fiber in it. Again, all the way back in March we offered to help our institutions, county-wide, to hook up public hotspots and other gear. Every school, library, and public building could have been part of the solution in a way that didn’t involve overpaying the telecoms.

It should also be noted that the schools have known about this need for years, most critically since March, but dragged their feet to do anything at all, then entered into negotiations with telecom companies that are notoriously difficult to deal with. In the end, they say they’re getting “special rates” from the big telecoms, but that doesn’t pan out either. If you look at my picture above, you’ll see that we, as taxpayers, are paying at least $30 per month per device for terrible connection speeds that usually perform well below the already inadequate federal high-speed “25 Mbit down and 3 Mbit up” standard and have very high latency (suffers from long delays), meaning the connections are even worse than you already think they are. I have confirmed the cost per unit for the devices the libraries are lending out. I wrote to the schools to try to get a costs for their devices, but they didn’t respond, so I’m in the middle of a public records request with them.

One of the only ways to increase wireless performance is to remove obstructions, which around here means cutting down trees. But even if we do that, which as an environmentalist I hope we don’t, it will never perform nearly as well as the fiber backing it up, because wireless has many issues that fiber does not.

Now I know what they’ll say in response: It was an emergency, we had to do something. Fiber takes too long to install. But none of these arguments make sense. As covered in many sources, for instance “Fiber” by Susan Crawford, wireless networks are only as good as the wires that connect them. At the September 30th, Broadband Breakfast, Director Drew Clark was very clear to point out, for the millionth time, that you need to get your communications onto fiber as quickly as possible, and back everything up with as much fiber as possible no matter how the communication starts. The debate on this point is over. We need fiber. We have the money. There are many examples where it would have helped us address many of our social and economic concerns. So what’s holding it up? Well instead of speculating, I refer you again to “Secret Lovers,” and the fickle way our decision-makers continue to take advantage of their true partners

In the end, many of these players want to be seen as heroes, people who stepped up during a crisis. But the truth is, they ignored this issue for years; they allowed internal politics to slow progress on real, long-term solutions; the inadequate “solution” connections they propose won’t even be ready until almost next semester, more than 200 days since the crisis began; and they gave the money to the same companies that caused the problem in the first place. A real hero admits when they’ve made a mistake and then works to correct it. So come on city, county, Port: admit that you should have started installing public fiber by now, and then actually start doing it.

Because in the meantime, communities that have invested in public infrastructure are providing free, 50 Mbit symmetrical fiber to home connections. They are offering $70 a month gigabit fiber to home connections, and they are able to leverage these networks to provide all their citizens with connectivity in perpetuity. Like PUD #3.

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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