We Got the Money, What’s the Plan?

Whatever happened to that multi-million dollar grant the Port got for rural broadband?

Whatever happened to that multi-million dollar grant the Port got for rural broadband?

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.

  1. If you love fiber to the home, where is the infrastructure?
  2. Where is the detailed plan for public fiber that thousands of people signed a petition to get?
  3. Where is the commitment to an accurate speed-testing project?
  4. Where are the answers to the public’s questions and the transparency, and accountability in general?
  5. How many pandemics will the Port/PUD/County sit through before they break ground?
  6. 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.

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 [...]

Comments by Readers

Dick Conoboy

Dec 13, 2021

I see there is a Broadband Advisory Group update at city council today (13 Dec) before the Public Works Committee at 10:AM.  https://meetings.cob.org/Meetings/ViewMeeting?id=2447&doctype=1

If you miss it, you can watch the video reruns later in the week. 

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Jon Humphrey

Dec 13, 2021

Good point Dick. Thanks to NWCitizen the BAG meetings are being recorded too. Remember when Public Workds Director Eric Johnston tried not to record them and hold them in secret and we had to fight for basic transperancy from the COB? Ah, the memories. I can pretty much tell you what they’re going to say because they said it at the BAG meeting. We have to thank Commissioner Deshmane again for sticking up for our rights btw. I really hope he runs for mayor when the time comes. He is consistently the only public rep. here that actually seems to care about all of us. Even the people that didn’t vote for him. You know like a professional would. 

Anyway, Eric tried to redefine the goal of the BAG as, “just to see what might be done and make recommendations, nothing more.” Atul let him know that we expect more than that and need the BAG to produce more than that. Magellan (the company doing the fake study https://nwcitizen.com/entry/biased-bag-internet-survey, the big telecom reps. on the BAG (aka most of the members), and Eric tried to gloss over the many issues with the study.

The more we look into Magellan the worse it gets. Most of the cities they’ve done studies for have remained under big telecom control. It looks like Magellan is the company you hire when you want bad results that protect big telecom. Which is why Eric pushed for them so hard. Will the mayor or counil acknowledge any of this and demand progress? Will they Open Access the existing public network we could have used this whole time to help out the other 88,764 people that live here during the pandemic and beyond? Probably not, as always I expect that their fear of Eric and a few special interests, and outright corruption in the case of Dan Hammill and Michael Lilliquist, will allow this bs to continue. In short, they’ll allow about 10 people they’re too spineless to hold accountable to determine the fate of about 90,000 others.

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Randy Petty

Jan 23, 2022

Here’s a very recent example of why better rural broadband is needed here On the 19th of January our CenturyLink DSL service went down.

 Their customer service people told me it was a fiber cut but had no further information ...at the same time our mediocre Verizon broadband signal out here on Agate Bay Lane became virtually unusable. Google searches would fail… you could make a phone call which I took advantage of to contact Verizon but it seems that since the Verizon service went from abysmal back to mediocre Friday morning when CenturyLink came back online, the cell towers were being swamped and overloaded by people who work and study at home and others who without CenturyLink were totally dependent on mobile broadband towers.  Reasonable internet service is no longer a luxury or a “nice to have”.. two of the people in my extended family work from home full time and we’re unable to with both CenturyLink and overloaded cell towers.

I thought about some of these mobile signal boosters or extenders but generally they require AC power or both AC power and internet access, neither which are going to be available during a power outage which is what usually causes us to lose Internet service… A generator might help.   One would hope that things like this would lead to larger fines for construction companies and others that are digging without checking what’s beneath the surface as well as a proliferation of signs indicating where pipelines and cables are laid.  We’re becoming a 3rd world country.

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Jon Humphrey

Jan 23, 2022

Thanks Randy, sadly your story is very common in Whatcom County and the core issue is a lack of affordable fiber. In fact, thanks to CenturyLink, pre-COVID, the entire region lost communications for a few days when some fiber was cut around Sedro-Wooley.

Allow me to use your example to explain why. 

1. Private companies intentionally keep the locations of their fiber hidden from each other as much as possible. This also means that no one else really knows where it is when they go to do work. In the industry we know that CenturyLink and T-Mobile are especailly bad about recording their runs at all, so even when a road project starts, for example, they may not produce accurate maps. 

2. Private fiber costs $900 a month for Gigabit here and $25,000 to get hooked up with WAVE. If you can get it at all. So 13.5 times more than on public networks in Anacortes, etc. 
So there is a very good chance that both Verizon and CenturyLink had WAVE leases up here. Since fibers carry many wavelengths, and leases are of wavelengths on fiber, there is a very good chance that only an handful of fibers were leased to them and could have easily been cut or damaged at the same time.
There is no need for this lack of redundancy, but it happens all of the time here as the cost of private fiber, and lack of public fiber, makes the cost of redundancy so high that everyone half-asses their installations. Mount Vernon carries 16 waves per-strand, modern equipment can do 32. Wiring up the entire county with fiber to the premises for everyone would cost about as much as the new high school. In ANacortes and Chatanooga the same fiber service costs $70 a month and is $100 to install, in Mount Vernon it’s $180 for the serivce and usually less than $300 to install. So the high cost of fiber here really holds us back. 

3. Starlink and 5G are NOT replacement for fiber. Even Elon Musk says, “Starlink is a nice compliment to fiber.” Note: Not a replacemnet for it. They both require fiber to work anyway and ther performance of both isn’t even close to fiber. 

4. South Korea, Japan, etc. Do Gigiabit fiber to the home for $24 a month. 

I’d refer you to this excellent article that compares communications types on Whatcom Watch for more details. In shrot, we need fiber, period. Everything else is, at best, an extenions of it. https://whatcomwatch.org/index.php/article/untangling-the-wires-understanding-tech-recognizing-fiber/

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