State’s Telecom Standards Full of Loopholes

Regulatory standards in SB-5511 offer nothing but give the appearance of doing something.

Regulatory standards in SB-5511 offer nothing but give the appearance of doing something.

Some say Senate Bill 5511 is a big leap forward for new Washington state broadband standards. However, after analyzing the bill, I suggest that it does what our leadership consistently does best. In a nutshell: It lends the appearance of doing something without actually accomplishing anything…and is ultimately a handout to big telecom. Worse yet, it may be the last nail in a coffin that will keep the lid on our poor broadband standards for another decade. The state seems willing to confine our standard to about 1/10th of what the rest of the developed world enjoys, while continuing our outmoded technology and higher costs.

I recently had a conversation with the Washington State Broadband Office director, Russ Elliott. I’ve spoken with Russ before about public broadband and I appreciate his willingness to talk to me about it, even though we don’t always agree. In our recent conversation, he suggested that public broadband might be a good idea, but that he had to be careful what he said to a public broadband advocate. He also talked about honoring the big telecoms since, in his view, we asked them to wire up the country, and they did, (instead of making it a public service). He left out the part where they charge us the highest rates in the world for inferior connections, and they stole about $400 billion they were supposed to use to install fiber by 2010, and their inferior last-mile copper technologies, and their relentless attacks on the First Amendment. But the purpose of our discussion was Washington’s SB-551 regarding new internet standards for the state.

What SB-5511 Says:

There are several disturbing pro-big telecom sections in SB-5511. For example, there is an entire section that solidifies Washington’s strange “first service laws” that have earned us a red coloring on the Community Broadband Networks Map because they require big telecom not only to be informed of new service, but to be given the opportunity to upgrade to equivalent service before new service can be put in. Most other states do not have laws like this. Here is the exact wording from Section 7.

“Evidence that no later than six weeks before submission of the application, the applicant contacted, in writing, all entities providing broadband service near the proposed project area to ask each broadband service provider’s plan to upgrade broadband service in the project area to speeds that meet or exceed the state’s definition for broadband service as defined in section 2 of this act (section 2 only defines speeds at the worthless standard of 25 Mbits down and 3 Mbits up), within the time frame specified in the proposed grant or loan activities.”

Of course there are a many work arounds to this, but virtually no other state protects big telecom like we do. Apparently, Washington considers the muti-billion dollar telecoms to be a charity.

However, I will focus on the inadequate speed standard set in this article instead. We should note again that in section 2 the “high-speed” standard defined is the aforementioned 25/3 standard, while Canadians enjoy a 50/10 internet as a right standard, and there are no penalties for telecoms who do not meet any of the standards in this bill. In short, it’s a bill of moderately-strong suggestions.

SB-5511 Speed “Standard” Wording:

“By 2028, all Washington businesses and residences have access

to at least one provider of broadband with download speeds of at

least one hundred fifty megabits per second and upload speeds of at

least one hundred fifty megabits per second.”

On the surface, it appears Washington’s “150 Mbit Standard” is much better than the FCC’s standards, but there are serious loopholes that will keep us from really addressing the Digital Divide and participating in a modern economy. For state standards to be effective, they need to define performance times, expected latency standards, and price points that will address the Digital Divide. SB-5511 does none of these things.

What SB-5511 SHOULD Say:

By 2028, all Washington businesses and residences will have access to at least two providers of fiber-optic to-the-home broadband with download speeds of at least one gigabit per second and upload speeds of at least one gigabit per second. These connections should have no more than fifty milliseconds of latency and perform within 10% of this level for at least 10 minutes under a network load test. Connection fees should be $70 a month or less for Gigabit, and hook-up costs should not exceed $1,000. 100 Mbit low-income connections should be provided at $10 a month or less.

That’s what people really need. And it’s something only fiber can do.

Here’s Why:

1. Americans pay the highest rates for data in the world, yet countries such as South Korea have virtually 100% Gigabit coverage for $25 or less a month. This is because in the U.S., data is often carried over inferior last-mile connections, like obsolete Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) technology that uses existing phone lines. Our inferior connections include anything with DSL in it, like CenturyLink’s pretend Gigabit service (which is awful as I wrote about here,) or anything with coaxial cable in it, like Comcast connections. Wireless and satellite are equally dubious and not only don’t perform as well as fiber, they also need to be backed up by fiber. The sad truth is that by not setting specific standards, many of the existing connections that fail us every day, can be considered adequate under this toothless state law.

2. By 2028, 150 Mbits will be inadequate. (See Nielsen’s Law of Internet Bandwidth). So we need to shoot for Gigabit fiber to every premises. Keep in mind that in places like Chattanooga, TN, 50 Mbit low-income connections are free and Chattanooga offers up to 10 Gigabit connections for $300 a month. Gigabit connections there, and in Anacortes, WA, are $70/month. We needed solutions decades ago, even more so now during a pandemic, and 2028 is still a long way off. This shows us that even during the pandemic there was simply no sense of urgency among our lawmakers.

3. When your telecom bill says certain speeds are “available,”what does that mean? It sounds good, but it doesn’t actually mean anything. “Available” does not define a time span, latency standard, or cost standard. “Available” for how long? Will a home be considered well-served if it gets 150 Mbits for five seconds? Or 150 Mbits, at random peaks? Will they consider it good service when your DSL, cable, wireless, or satellite claims to be symmetrical (same download and upload speeds) but is actually inconsistent?

Remember, fiber was created in the 1950s to replace 1870’s copper cables because copper was/is inadequate and has lots of problems. Although some may argue that wireless and satellite are convenient, they simply are not equivalent to fiber. Please check out this Whatcom Watch article to compare connection types. As an aside, have you noticed that it wasn’t until politicians got involved that we started arguing about the laws of physics?

4. It’s a good news/bad news thing. Washington state, unlike the FCC, is using a per-premises standard to determine availability. On the other hand, the FCC determines availability per Census Block, wherein they consider all buildings in a census block served even if only one of them actually has internet access. Washington has set a slightly higher standard, but it’s a loose standard. If someone installs a wireless antenna that has 150 Mbits available, they consider you served, even if you are sharing that bandwidth with your entire block. And again, it only has to have 150 Mbits available to meet the “standard,” it does not need to perform consistently at that standard. Comcast, for example, uses shared neighborhood hubs, which means you share all of your bandwidth with your neighbors. So if they upgrade Whatcom County to a new cable standard, even if their connections don’t hold up to testing, as we’ve shown they often don’t, the state will consider you served—which is exactly what they’re after. They are lying to us again so we’ll stop demanding real infrastructure.

5. No state-defined standard for latency. Network “latency ” is the term used for delays in data transmission both to and from a network. The absence specific latency and time of operation limits at a specified standard in this bill is an effort to appease obsolete cable, DSL, wireless, and satellite companies that claim they provide symmetrical connections at a given speed. What they don’t tell you is that the latency numbers they indicate will be unreliable because when connections share bandwidth (remember those “shared neighborhood hubs” that Comcast uses?) your speeds are affected by your proximity to that hub, as well as impacts from the environment in the case of wireless technologies, such as trees, buildings, etc. The question remains: Why not just connect to fiber which, among other things, eliminates the issue of latency and is being installed to backup other communications anyway? It’s time to stop screwing around with this. While wireless and satellite companies may claim low latency and higher speeds in the near future, their performance will be inconsistent and will vary. Again, when we compare fiber to other connection types we are comparing apples, oranges and pears. Fiber is the critical infrastructure needed to make communications work, everything else is simply unnecessary and in some cases even obsolete.

6. How much does this cost? SB-5511 does not define how much services should cost, so there is no reason to believe their “standards” will address the Digital Divide. This is the reason I started working on the broadband issue years ago.

Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 passed, allowing industry to raise rates without government oversight, cable companies have increased their rates 250%. As an example, WAVE fiber customers tell me they are charged $900 a month for Gigabit service, $250 for 1/10th that speed, and around $300 for 150 Mbit. So although WAVE can say 150 Mbit fiber service is available in some parts of Bellingham, and some very limited parts of the county, in truth, about 75% of our population can’t afford it, and most don’t actually have access to it. On top of those outrageous monthly fees, they charge thousands of dollars to get hooked up. One client on the Y Road was quoted $250,000 to connect, and $1,300 a month for a dark fiber lease from WAVE. (Dark fiber is fiber infrastructure that is not yet “lit” or in use by a service provider.)

These omissions from the state’s “150 Mbit standard” are there, again, to appease private companies and big telecoms while trying to lull citizens into a false idea that they have high-speed internet. Sorry citizens, but your government still doesn’t care about you and they show it with toothless, industry-designed laws like this.

7. An environmental nightmare. Finally, the state is not considering the huge environmental impact of these technologies. Fiber is the only ecologically sound communications solution because it lasts 100 years and, in the near future, will be repairable using small robots. It is also the most efficient communications method and uses the least amount of power. We will be lucky if any wireless or satellite tech lasts 30 years. Starlink’s satellites, being closer to earth, may mean better performance, but with so many satellites required for coverage, they will fall back to earth more often. Check out this article to see how awful it is for the environment to get them launched. It totals a lot of environmental damage for a tech that isn’t nearly as good as fiber and has to be backed up on the ground by fiber anyway.

So in summation: our current state law, while it may sound good, is really just a half-assed measure and an elaborate ruse to continue giving tax-payer dollars to big telecom. Consumers only have two avenues of protection from egregious rate increases: regulation or competition. We have neither.

This is effective regulation and what SB-5511 SHOULD say:

By 2028, all Washington businesses and residences have access to at least two providers of fiber-optic to the home broadband with download speeds of at least one gigabit per second and upload speeds of at least one gigabit per second. These connections should have no more than fifty milliseconds of latency and perform within 10% of this level for at least 10 minutes under a network load test. Connection fees should be $70 a month or less for Gigabit, and hook-up costs should not exceed $1,000. 100 Mbit low-income connections should be provided at $10 a month or less.

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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