Recently, I wrote to the Port of Bellingham to follow up on the excellent proposal staff member Gina Stark made in 2019 for a county-wide public fiber network. Gina, having done a lot of research, realized what we all have at this point: Towns with public fiber networks, like Anacortes and Mount Vernon, are light years ahead of Bellingham and Whatcom County. Fortunately, shortly after that, the Port received a $2 million dollar rural broadband grant that should have been used to start to solve our problems. Between the hundreds of millions in available state and federal grants, partnerships with the PUD and County, the fact that fiber pays for itself via leasing and in many other ways, and internal funding this project should be well under way. If only they had immediately started construction on this network, preferably with the help of the PUD, Whatcom County, and Bellingham City Hall. Instead, they have been sitting on this money for years.
So, what happened? Well, even though Gina, and many other experts, presented overwhelming evidence that a county-wide fiber network was the best solution, for some reason the Port was less than enthusiastic about using the best solution and wanted to involve special interests in the discussions, including throughout the pandemic. Sure, a few things happened here and there. Millions were spent on near-worthless big telecom hotspots and a ridiculous Starlink installation for the Nooksack, but there was no real consideration of how low-income people would afford these lower performance, high-cost, band-aid solutions over the long run or even what the price they would be paying per Mbit was after Gina’s initial presentation. So, on the whole, no systemic plan for a county-wide network has even begun to be implemented.
The obvious question is: Why? Well, since the Port, PUD, Whatcom County and City Hall don’t want to reveal much, it’s hard to say. But it looks like the Port plans to piss our tax dollars away on less useful, private solutions and line the pockets of a few companies.
Here’s the deal: Anything other than work on a public-fiber network will waste our money. For example, Open Access, where one fiber network system is open to multiple independent providers, allows various companies to share infrastructure. Pogo Zone is the only local, net-neutral provider that supports Open Access; Comcast, WAVE, Ziply, and the other big telecoms do not. Spending our money on anything other than public fiber encourages these companies to buildout their own private infrastructure and, therefore, gives them the ability to saddle us with the highest prices for low levels of service. WAVE charges 13.5 times more for Gigabit than Anacortes does for public fiber, and 250 times more than Anacortes to connect. Ziply, provides mostly poor-performing, obsolete DSL services, at high prices compared to public fiber networks. Like Century-Link their pretend fiber service is a low performing hybridized fiber/obsolete DSL service in most cases. That’s why they list their service speeds as “up to” on their site and their pricing increases after the introductory period just like CenturyLink. And that’s if you can get it at all, which most of you can’t. This is also why the Port, and entities that protect big telecom in general, are not eager to run real load testing on these connections. Why? Because, they won’t hold up to the RRUL load testing that we should be doing which is way more accurate than the testing the city is pushing to protect big telecom, as I wrote about recently. In short, they don’t want accurate testing because they know it will reveal how full of it, they are.
So in the long run, if we want to enjoy high speeds and low prices, attract next-generation jobs, and have any chance of our county keeping up with digital life, we need to build a county-wide, public fiber backbone network. It is critical infrastructure. Again, Anacortes offers Gigabit fiber to the home for $70 a month on their public network with a $100 install fee. Why wouldn’t we all want that?
In a recent email exchange, I asked the Port, the PUD and County Council some specific questions.
- If you love fiber to the home, where is the infrastructure?
- Where is the detailed plan for public fiber that thousands of people signed a petition to get?
- Where is the commitment to an accurate speed-testing project?
- Where are the answers to the public’s questions and the transparency, and accountability in general?
- How many pandemics will the Port/PUD/County sit through before they break ground?
- Where is the Port’s plan for public input and review on public broadband?
Well, as usual the Port, PUD and County don’t like answering questions or being held accountable. I must say, even City Hall could learn a thing or two about obfuscation from the Port, and that’s saying something. The only useful response was, as usual, from Commissioner Deshmane who noted this about the 2019 Petrichor Broadband partnership the Port announced years ago that, “…helps port districts advocate and facilitate broadband access for rural areas throughout the state… I don’t get the feeling that this partnership has produced anything. If it has those answers are probably needing to come from the Port. I have seen no work product connected to Petrichor.”
PUD Commissioner Murphy responded as well just to say that Commissioner Grant was their broadband head at this time. Which makes little sense since Commissioner Deshmane knows so much more about broadband, but I try not to dive too much into internal affairs. The PUD has some new hires, and we’ll have to wait and see if that produces anything, again. How long? Sadly, probably for many years to come.
The other commissioner who responded was Ken Bell; unfortunately, his response was worthless. He didn’t address any of my specific questions, he complained about the lack of respect he feels he deserves for failing us during a pandemic and climate crisis, and he ignored the need for an accurate speedtest study on the county’s fiber backbone. Mostly, he was annoyed at me, his subject. He said, “Also, this is one Commissioner that believes he is responsible for giving the public an explanation on how and why we spend tax money. I believe that my fellow Commissioners believe the same. They have incredible integrity and I trust them implicitly. I also have a great deal of faith in Gina and our staff. We will make the best decision for all of our constituents.”
Incredible integrity? Then where are the responses? Are they not capable of making their own decisions? Did they nominate Ken to give their responses? How can they make good decisions when most of them don’t really understand broadband? The one Port staff member that does, Gina Stark, already told them to install a county-wide fiber network. So, what are they waiting for? Unfortunately, he provided no details and intentionally avoided specifics. Should we be satisfied that he responded at all? A response from “His Majesty Bell of the Royal Port of Bellingham? “Pardon me Sir Bell, may this ingraft'r asketh thy majesty how thoust hath spent our tax wage? I knoweth t is improp'r of a peasant.” (The link to the English to Shakespearian English translator I used.)
Apparently, County Councilmember Rud Browne doesn’t believe he needs to answer specific questions either, (which is par for the course with county government,) because he responded in a similar way, “…your (sic) not going to convince me that after spending 40 years selling computers and networking equipment around the planet I don’t understand the economics of fiber.” Sorry, Rud, but technology has changed over the last 40 years and the actions of the Port, County, and PUD show that they really don’t get the modern economics of fiber. In a nutshell: it is simply the longest lasting, lowest cost, best solution. In fact, none of the other solutions will work well without it. Period.
I did receive a response from Port staff member, Rob Fix. Which was surprising because I hadn’t contacted him. I was also surprised to note that he replied on his private e-mail account. But he too obfuscated, saying, “We love fiber to the home,” without providing any details. Really, Rob? If that’s true, how come the Port has yet to lay a single foot of public fiber, or even conduit, after the second winter of a pandemic, and years of sitting on rural broadband grant money? He also told me that my “rhetoric was not helpful,” As far as I can tell he was saying, “stop telling people the truth, you’ll ruin our plans and the deals we’ve made with special interests.” But only time will tell for sure. Rob also did not seem to see the point in committing to real testing or being held accountable by the pesky public that pays his salary.
None of the other commissioners or council members responded at all, including Michael Sheppard, Christine Grant, and Bobby Briscoe. And no one took this opportunity to comment on the faulty broadband testing project coming out of City Hall. Which I suspect means they are planning to use the same inaccurate testing.
I even offered to have a public debate, based on solid numbers and facts, to show that there is no logical argument against public fiber. But since they don’t believe in transparency, having to defend their position in public is the thing they fear most, so they ignored this as well. If and when they come up with a solution, they will let their subjects know. In the meantime, we should continue to pay our ever-increasing taxes and cost of living expenses and never complain to them about it. In their opinion, we should take what they give us and be happy to get it. Does this make them religious figures? And the Bell said unto me, “even the dogs eat the obsolete DSL that falls from their master’s table and are thankful for it.”
I would like to make a final point about the culture that permeates our city and county offices. In Bellingham and Whatcom County our elected officials do not direct staff, rather, they are directed by the staff. In theory, elected officials make the public’s needs known to staff and they do their best to make it happen. Here, staff evade or ignore the direction of elected officials. Further, the County, PUD and Port officials are also not used to being held accountable and respond poorly when they are. They expect respect they have not earned and don’t deserve.
By installing half-assed internet service, that will need to be upgraded and replaced constantly, we are leaving future generations with the task of finally installing the public fiber network we should be installing now. By ignoring the specifics like setting a maximum install fee they will insure that fiber remains unaffordable to most. Our port and governments and utility districts have the money, staff, equipment, and expertise to have made this happen decades ago, instead they are letting us sit through two winters of a pandemic without even hinting at when we might start to see some real county-wide results.
So how about this Ken, Rob, Rud, and the rest. How about instead of hoping for respect you haven’t earned and don’t deserve, you try getting it the old fashioned way: by doing things that actually make people’s lives better. By spending their tax dollars on the best solutions. How about not making them struggle and suffer through a pandemic before doing something? You know, like we elected you to do. Because so far, you have failed us. Well, technically we didn’t elect Rob, our commissioners just seem to take their orders from him. Talk about taxation without representation.
And when will they finally break ground on this half-assed solution? Well, no one at the PUD, County or Port will tell you. They have applied for some additional grants but could easily have been working on the project this entire time. A county-wide network was only estimated to be around the cost of the new Sehome high school and fiber and conduit don’t carry COVID.