Recently, the Broadband Advisory Group presented to City Council a report on the direction the city might take to improve our internet service. The report was generated by Magellan Advisors consulting firm, under the supervision of the BAG. Magellan’s payment was not to exceed $99,750.00. The Cascadia Daily News covered the presentation to council in the story, “Report: Bellingham Should Not Become a Broadband Provider”. Let’s take a closer look at this article and the report.
I recommend you start by reviewing all the Broadband Advisory Group’s connections to big telecom outlined in my article here. The report was primarily presented by BAG committee member and WAVE executive, Milissa Miller. After an intro, the article starts:
“The notion of city government selling broadband internet to residents has its fans, but the report concluded such a plan would be “extremely expensive, and the debt service to build such a network would be unsustainable,” Broadband Advisory Workgroup member (and WAVE executive) Milissa Miller told the City Council. The consulting firm Magellan Advisors wrote the report with oversight from the citizen-led workgroup.”
- “Extremely expensive??” Milissa Miller is an executive with WAVE broadband company. WAVE charges $35,000 or more to get connected and $900 a month for gigabit fiber. In comparison, places with public fiber networks, like Anacortes, usually charge less than $500 to connect, and gigabit FTTP (fiber to the premises) is $70 a month. Miller is also a voting member of the group while other big telecoms, like Comcast, are non-voting. And, WAVE has a non-voting member as well, giving them two members on the BAG. No other provider or interest has more than one.
- The consulting firm Magellan Advisors has a reputation and track record of being brought in to create reports favorable to big telecom, which is evident here as the suggestions from members of the BAG for public services are almost non-existent and conveniently left out of the report in favor of special interests like WAVE and Comcast.
““Bringing the existing city-owned fiber network to every home and business could add more than $600 million to the city’s debt load, the report said.”
- That’s funny because when the Broadband Advisory Group was formed Public Works Director Eric Johnston referred to the existing network as “robust” and said it runs throughout most of the city, which it is and does (see map). Using the existing network would not cost anything. In fact, it would make money through leasing which would pay for its own expansion. See the picture above for the city’s existing network map. Guess Johnston changed his tune after big telecom had a nice long talk with him. Now we’re no longer “robust” even though we have an existing network that runs throughout the entire city (see map).
- In conversations with the City of Mount Vernon IT department I found out that the cost of running fiber in neighboring Mount Vernon is usually only about $180K a mile, while the nationwide average is $25K to $55K a mile. FYI, Bellingham is only about 29 square miles. The argument can be made that it’s easier to install fiber in a more rural area like Mount Vernon than the COB,
3. Further, by pairing the installation of fiber with a Dig Once Policy, the cost of putting in fiber would be reduced by 90%. Just one more thing they’re all well aware of.
“There’s still misinformation, I think to a certain extent, that swirls around this topic,” said workgroup member RB Tewksbury, alluding to the community’s interest in having Bellingham become an internet service provider or ISP. “It could bankrupt the city if we try to go into direct competition with the ISPs in a market that has this much coverage,” Tewksbury said.
- For starters, the network we’re suggesting would not bankrupt the city because it would NOT be installed/upgraded all at once.
- Also, the report completely ignores the idea of an OpenAccess model, which is the system Mount Vernon uses. OpenAccess would allow local net-neutral ISPs, like PogoZone, to simply lease the fiber and provide us the service. The city wouldn’t need to become an ISP at all.
- But, if the city were a provider, they would actually make money from their customers; which is exactly why big telecom is fighting so hard to constrain and retain us. For the city, infrastructure upgrades would be paid for the same way any ISP pays for them. The difference between public vs. private ISPs would be better connectivity, a lower price, and all the social and economic benefits that come with fairly-priced, accessible, lightning speed internet.
- Finally, there is NO mention that Comcast, Lumen (aka CenturyLink) and other connections are simply NOT equivalent to FTTP connections. In fact, Satpal’s favorite connection type, Starlink, is starting to exhibit all of the problems we told him it would before he forced it on the Nooksack people instead of building them a fiber network like the Tulalip people have had for decades.
“A survey included in Magellan’s report showed 91% of respondents in the city had high-speed broadband, with almost all of the service coming from two providers: Comcast and Lumen.”As I’ve written before, the standards COB and Magellan used were low. In this study, “high-speed” was based on the then federal standard for high-speed, which was pathetic at 25/3 (Mbits download and upload). The state standard is 100/20. For comparison, gigabit service in Anacortes is 1,000/1,000.
- To further skew the numbers, they made it difficult for people without internet connections to participate in the study. For example, weeks into the survey, I went to the library to get a paper copy of it but no one had them. Also, the number of respondents in the study was too low to be statistically viable. Magellan’s own report shows that there were only 1,625 responses with only 26 paper respondents.
- Another built-in prejudice was that the tester they used is inaccurate and biased toward making big telecom connections look much better than they are. When I offered to run better RRUL network load testing on 1,000 sites for only $11,000 , County Executive Sidhu went out of his way to block it, insisting on a study 10 times the cost, using a less accurate tester. My proposal was to do it at cost to benefit the community. I just wanted to cover fuel, wear and tear, and pay myself a minimum wage. But, no. Why? Because accurate testing would blow a hole in the idea that we have adequate coverage. It’s vital that big telecom keep running inaccurate tests to keep providing us with overpriced, obsolete, service.
“The city has built its own patchwork fiber network over the past 30 years that amounts to more than 100 miles of cable, used by the city, county emergency services, Bellingham Public Schools and Whatcom Transportation Authority. Since the network was built in an “ad hoc, project-oriented” manner, per the report, it can’t easily be expanded into a citywide system.
Instead, Magellan recommended the city build out its fiber network to make it attractive on the wholesale market to certain businesses and internet service providers. The consultant’s report said more research was needed to determine the cost of such upgrades.”
- Eric Johnston, head of public works, said at the start of the BAG meetings that our network was “robust.”
- We just paid Magellan nearly $100,000 to do a study. How can more study be needed? Can we have our $100K back?
- OpenAccess, and/or building the network to be attractive to the wholesale market, was always on the BAG’s agenda. How did any mention of that get left out of this pro-WAVE report and the CDN article?
- The map shows we already have a city-wide system. Do they think we can’t read a map?
“The report left other questions unanswered, workgroup and City Council members said. Businesses weren’t adequately surveyed, so it was unclear how well existing broadband is serving that sector. The consultant didn’t look into how Bellingham might get high-speed internet to residents who don’t have it, either because they can’t afford it or they lack the technical know-how to operate the service in their homes.
“One of our focuses was to look at the underserved and unserved market, and that ... was not really addressed from the consultant’s level,” workgroup member Steven Spitzer said. “There’s still a lot of work to do for that segment of the population.”
- How were businesses not “adequately surveyed?” We paid Magellan to do this. Were they hired to meet citizens’ needs, or to protect big telecom interests?
- The city, PUD and Port all have broadband specialists, network technicians, and the equipment to install fiber. Why can’t they get broadband to residents? They are sitting on an existing network. If government doesn’t want to be a provider, a local company like PogoZone can do it. Yet this option was left out of the report. Again, are they protecting big telecom? Milissa Miller of WAVE is.
- The technical ability of residents is irrelevant. Whether a municipal network or an OpenAccess network, the provider would include customer service. There is no problem with the abilities of residents here; this contention in the report is nonsense.
- Many businesses and individuals have the ability and expertise to operate their own network. Many of us grew up with technology. Even if we didn’t, the Fiber-Optic Association provides free training and even a $20 certification in the installation and operation of fiber networks via FiberU. So again, their argument is nonsensical and designed to protect WAVE and big telecom.
“Gina Stark, Port of Bellingham’s broadband manager and a nonvoting member of the workgroup, said in an email the Port may be able to help the city with its broadband improvements. The Port has secured millions of dollars in grants to extend fiber to underserved and unserved parts of rural Whatcom County.
“The Port welcomes the opportunity to partner with the city — or any other public or private organization — to increase the availability, affordability and equitable quality of broadband access throughout our community,” Stark said.
This is good news. The Port is allowed to be an ISP and has a good relationship with local providers like PogoZone. Where is the PUD in all of this? PUD Commissioner Christine Grant refuses to comment.
“Discussions are in the early stages, but some council members appear ready to make significant investments in the city’s broadband infrastructure. Councilor Lisa Anderson suggested adding a new division head in City Hall, “much like how the city funded a climate position.”
Anderson added that the city should start treating broadband like the other utilities it manages.
“Having access to the technology … is as essential to us as power, as sewer, as water,” she said. “So we really do need to look at how we are going to be staffing this system, to be able to go forward.””
Anderson is right, but why have we waited through an entire pandemic to access our existing infrastructure? Why is there no pushback from council members who have read “Fiber,” or my articles, or spoken with Community Broadband Networks, and the FOA, and who know the information in this report was skewed and manipulated? Where was the push-back? Where were the broadband specialists and the network technicians from the city, Port and PUD? Will the city at least have the common sense to have the new broadband position report directly to the mayor“
City staff should be ready to resume the broadband discussion with the council in November, Public Works Director Eric Johnston said.”
- Is the council going to bring in an unbiased professional to participate in those discussions? No. Their bias was made clear when members of the Technology Alliance Group for Northwest Washington tried to kill the “Whatcom County Broadband Strategy” document. John Servais wrote about that issue here. They were Milissa and Frank Miller of WAVE, PUD Commissioner Grant (who is good friends with Milissa Miller and sick of being held accountable), and Andrew Reding (Chair of the Whatcom Democrats) who is also sick of his candidates being held legitimately accountable.
- Where is our Dig Once Policy? Oh yeah, Lilliquist and Johnston wrote a fake one to try and fool us instead.
- Johnston has been shown time and time again to have abused his position in order to protect big telecom. When are they going to fire him and get someone reputable instead?
Overall, the biggest disappointment is with Cascadia Daily News. Although they dutifully reported what was in the Magellan report, this was the perfect opportunity to do some old-fashioned investigative journalism. But they didn’t.