The Hype vs. the Reality

Feds announce discounted/free high-speed internet, but the devil is in the details.

Feds announce discounted/free high-speed internet, but the devil is in the details.

I find myself doing a lot of analysis of other peoples’ articles lately. Mostly, it’s because our “news” outlets either refuse to present both sides of the broadband argument or refuse to do the research. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that the Herald (in this case) is funded by big telecom advertisers. Must just be a big coincidence. 

The article I am referring to is, Bellingham Herald article, “Millions now eligible for cheaper — or even free — high-speed internet.”

It touts the Biden administration and several of the telecoms as internet heroes, when the truth is, they are providing next to nothing. They apparently expect us to “Settle for nothing now and settle for nothing later.” They are applying the same flawed logic that caused previous administrations to dump over $400 billion into big telecom companies to build a nationwide fiber network by 2010 that never happened. What did the big telcoms do instead? They stole it. So what is the Biden Administration doing? Giving them more money so they can steal that too. 

Granted, it is hard to argue with free internet service, unless it’s virtually worthless, as is much of the service covered by this plan. 

The Herald article claims that tens of millions of Americans are eligible to have their internet service costs lowered by up to $30 a month, $75 for families on tribal lands. The federal poverty line, which one has to meet to receive this benefit, is $13,590 per individual.There are a few other ways to qualify, but overall you have to be poor.

What the article fails to mention is that none of these connections hold up to comprehensive RRUL testing (Realtime Response Under Load), making them virtually worthless. For example, for $110 a month, my household supposedly receives a 200 Mbit down and 10 Mbit up connection from Comcast. But these are according to the inaccurate browser-based tests the FCC, state, PUD, Port, COB and telecoms use. Actually, I am lucky to get 25 Mbits down and 3 Mbits up, when I test with a RRUL network load tester for real-world performance and conditions. This tester shows the actual performance we experience most of the time. Their speeds are not fast enough to run a Zoom connection consistently, and definitely not two connections. These “low-income” connections will be much worse.  

The FCC, the telecoms, and our state and local public institutions refuse to use the better RRUL standard because they know it will reveal how terrible their connections actually are. Countries like South Korea provide 1,000 Mbit symmetrical fiber to the premises for $24 U.S. dollars a month, and free low-income connections that are light years better than any big telecom connection here. Even the public network in Anacortes provides Gigabit fiber to the premises for $70 a month. 

Neither the federal government nor Washington state has a real high-speed standard, although Washington is a bit better than the feds. So the claims the Herald makes that, “the 20 big telecom service providers such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon already offer high-speed internet plans for $30 a month or less” is false, because their connections at those prices would not be considered high-speed by anyone but our broken government if tested accurately. In truth, the telecoms service standards are so low their policy must be that if they say “high-speed” often enough, it will be true. It won’t. 

The Biden administration has said a high-speed internet plan is “…one that offers download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second everywhere that the provider’s infrastructure is capable of it.” And, “That’s fast enough for a typical family of four to work from home, do schoolwork, browse the web, and stream high-definition shows and movies.”

Unfortunately, this is not a real standard since it’s not set on a real performance metric like RRUL. While obviously some connection is better than none, this “standard” uses download speeds only, and entirely ignores upload speeds. Consistent upload speeds are necessary for anything that requires video conferencing; think: telemedicine, online education, online sign language interpretation and many other real-time assistive services, any time you want to see the speaker.  

This “standard” also ignores the quality of the internet connection. Trying to make obsolete connections like DSL, or unreliable wireless connections seem equivalent to fiber-optic is absurd. But, apparently, just like our local governments, the White House doesn’t really care. In the meantime, corporate Democrats keep lining their pockets while abusive companies like the big telecoms keep promoting fake progress. Here is a great article from Whatcom Watch that compares the different connection technologies.

What is our local PUD/port/city/county doing about it?

The PUD recently announced a plan to use a decades old local utility district (LUD) model from Kitsap PUD.  Think of a LUD like a franchise agreement with the PUD. Then think of Forbes list of “Best and Worst Food Franchises.” With no real standards set, and lacking even an up to date webpage to tell citizens what’s even going on, the PUD plans to be like one of the worst listed. 

While this model works in Kitsap, and made sense for the first couple of decades, it makes little sense now. Why? Because until about two years ago, PUDs were not allowed to provide retail service. PUD Commissioners Grant and Deshmane said this problem “…was keeping our PUD from providing us with real fiber service.” So, we fought for them and helped them obtain retail authority. But did they get to work? Nope, they changed the excuse. They said, they needed to replace the former general manager, Steve Jilk, because he was anti-fiber. So they did; they got a new anti-Dig Once, anti-retail authority, general manager. Out with the old, in with the new, same as the old. This anti-citizen dance performed by these well monied organizations went on throughout the entire pandemic and continues to this day.     

So what are they up to now? With their new retail authority, the PUD is busy refusing to exercise it, instead using this decades old LUD model which was necessary only because PUDs were not able to be retail providers until recently. Participants in the LUD can look forward to $10,000 hook-up fees while the PUD discourages communities from digging their own trenches to install their own fiber and reduce costs, even though many of these communities have the expertise to do so. In Norway, the government often runs fiber to the curb and provides citizens with simple instructions to connect themselves. Our PUD refuses to work with such DIY-ers and any progress is at least two more years off as they expect it to take that long just to get the LUD plan in place. Then up to another 20 years to hook-up to PUD fiber. If ever. So, more delays, hindering, hold-up, procrastination and avoidance.

In the meantime, the Port/PUD are installing some service in un-served areas with, as their new general manger told me, “…no guarantee of speed or service.” Will it be better than nothing? Well, it will probably be about as good as the plans outlined in this Herald article: just good enough for our elected officials to claim they’ve done something come election time.

In reality, it’s really another elaborate handout to big telecom since the PUD/Port are currently agreeing to several conditions that make big telecom very happy.

1. They are starting with unserved customers the big telecoms didn’t want to serve anyway and providing service that is no better than the poor service the big telecoms provide.
2. Most areas that try to establish an LUD will immediately be told they can’t thanks to a strange “overbuild” clause in RDOF (Rural Digital Opportunity Fund) funding. This intentional flaw allows telecoms to lay territorial claims to areas and sit on them for many years before starting construction. If the telecom ultimately decides not to build they can pull out with virtually no penalty leaving the community with no improvement in service.
3. By refusing to be a retail provider the PUD/Port have sent a loud message to big telecom that they will play ball and never provide real competition. Without healthy competition there is no reason for the telecoms to provide better service. 

What can you do as citizens? 

Demand a county-wide standard where speeds are set using the RRUL test for at least 10 minutes. 

Demand the PUD provide retail services and a county-wide loop within 10 years. 

Demand the Port do the same. 

Demand that the COB establish a real Dig Once Policy and open access to their existing fiber-optic network. Tomorrow, not two years from now. We’ve waited long enough. 

Demand that the PUD and County establish real Dig Once policies too. 

Demand, finally, they stop polishing turds. The telecom turd can’t be polished anymore; it’s as shiny as it’s going to get. Our problems can only be solved by installing real, affordable, fiber-optic infrastructure.  

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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