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Publicly Owned Fiber Internet?

By On
• In Bellingham,

CenturyLink recently signed a deal with Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville and our City Council. According to the city, it was supposedly just a cable TV deal for PRISM TV services to be provided by CenturyLink, one of the nation’s most hated companies. In fact, City of Bellingham officials kept saying over and over again: “It’s a cable TV deal, not an internet deal. We regulate cable TV, not the Internet. That’s done at the state level.” There are a number of things the city didn’t tell you. One of those things is that CenturyLink, our new cable and Internet provider, is on the front lines in fighting net neutrality while crusading for the right to censor information. Another omission is that the city allowed them to avoid even the small amount of regulation that was placed on Comcast. Basically, CenturyLink is coming in with virtually no regulation

Nothing is more important in a free society than the free flow of information. Net neutrality guarantees that free flow of information. Unfortunately, our government consistently opts to support companies that have fought for the right to censor information while charging more per MB of data than any country in the developed world.

What we need is publicly owned fiber Internet.

One of the nation’s most successful public fiber networks is 20 miles away in Mount Vernon and they have offered to share information. Unfortunately, Bellingham was seemingly not interested in other options. In December of last year, the city held a single meeting with two local public fiber experts. Brian Heinreich, the city’s deputy administrator, showed up to the meeting late, then Bellingham Public Works Director Ted Carlson threatened to end the meeting early. None of the information from that meeting was ever shared with the City Council. The mayor has refused to consider a public option.

The definitive meeting took place on July 24 of this year. Actually, there were two meetings on that date. At an afternoon meeting, the public was not allowed to ask questions. At the evening meeting, the public could make brief statements, but the council didn’t take any anti-CenturyLink information under consideration. CenturyLink sent four lawyers to these meetings.

It was clear at that July 24 meeting that the mayor and council seemed to consider the deal a joke, or that the public was either disinterested or ignorant about what was going on. The disdain for a public option was obvious when council members literally laughed James Erb, the city’s own attorney, off the dais when he suggested they review the exceptions being made by the city for CenturyLink. Michael Lilliquist implied it was silly and told the city’s attorney he could sit down. Roxanne Murphy and Pinky Vargas both gushed over CenturyLink, thanking them for coming to town. Unfortunately, both council members had said the opposite at a Young Democrats meeting in an effort to get their endorsement. Vargas was specifically asked if she supported net neutrality and said she did. By the July 24th meeting she had apparently changed her position to the point of gushing over CenturyLink. Murphy had an equally poor showing, initially saying she would support the same kind of infrastructure they had in Tacoma, specifically, public infrastructure. Then at the July 24th meeting, she told CenturyLink how she has been a happy customer of theirs for years, thanked them for coming into the community, and added she would wait as long as necessary to get their services. Here is a link to the video of the 7/24 meeting. The CenturyLink discussion starts around 10 minutes and 30 seconds.

The day after signing the “TV” contract with CenturyLink, Kelli Linville killed a nearly completed report on private Internet options in the area by the city’s Community and Economic Development Manager Tara Sundin. Linville has also “indefinitely delayed” a report on public options by the city’s policy analyst Mark Gardner. The administration claimed there was a lack of interest. But we have collected hundreds of signatures petitioning for public fiber, crowds of people attend informational talks and events on the subject, people here and across the nation are showing the same interest. We want reports like this to be completed and we want better options.

Providing the whole city with fiber would cost about 1/5th of what we’ve already spent on the waterfront project. And remember, the city would actually make money from a publicly owned network and it would pay for its own expansion if installed correctly. In fact, a public network could be started with as little as $300,000 and would support many local providers, increasing our local self-reliance. In contrast, the city has glossed over details about CenturyLink’s low-income options. They’ve ignored the fact that CenturyLink’s services are priced at nearly 10 times what other developed countries pay and three times what other parts of the U.S. pay (check out Kansas City). Also, CenturyLink comes with long contracts.

Further, CenturyLink’s PRISM TV service will be provided over a small amount of fiber but once paired with the loss of net neutrality they will be able to prioritize any traffic they see fit. Meaning, when you test your connection at a speed-test site, your traffic will be prioritized, often giving you a false positive. This kind of behavior is the reason CenturyLink is in the middle of a class action lawsuit in King County.

We pay for lawyers on the city’s staff so the city can better protect our interests. Shouldn’t our elected officials represent our values as a community and protect us from companies that are on the front lines of fighting against free speech?

All we are asking for is some common sense. The city should establish a “dig once” policy to install inexpensive conduit, improve their existing infrastructure, and give citizens real options through a publicly owned, net-neutral, internet system that will begin to address our social and economic concerns, create jobs, and lower costs.

About Jon Humphrey

Writer • Member since May 23, 2017

Benevolent Progressive Techie

Comments by Readers

Michael Lilliquist

Aug 21, 2017


You know I support a serious look at publicly-owned fiber infrastructure, as a counterweight to the mossions and excesses of the private broadband industry.  I was just talking today (Monday) about a trip to Anacortes to see what they are doing on this front. I’m still looking for the right moment to bring Chris Mitchell to town.  But the CenturyLink deal really was different and separate in two ways.

First, as you noted, the City has no authority over internet or telecommunications—cities are pre-empted by federal law. Our only decision concerns cable TV, and even here we are pre-empted by state law on some points.  Second, cities can approve only NON-exclusive franchises: non-exlusivity is a legal requirement.  Practically speaking, the city MUST approve non-exclusive franchises for whomever asks. The basic outcome is a foregone conclusion, it is only the deatails and terms that are up for negotiation. The negotiations are about the details of the franschise agreement, but we have almost no legal basis to deny a request. We are not gatekeepers, and cannot be gatekeepers under the law. The rules are pretty clear: our duty consists of negiating the terms to use the public rights of way and public utility poles,  etc., and that’s about it.  We cannot really expand the scope of issues or negotiating points, without running afoul of the law. 

So, as much as I oppose and reject corporate erosions of net neutrality, my role as city council member with regard to a cable TV franchise agreement were clear and pretty narrow. I wish that was not so.

With regard to the “dig once” policy, I agree.

By the way, did you notice the recent City Council action approving an agreement with the Port, to build the telecomm/internet fiber “casings” along Granary and Laurel Streets, on the Waterfront? I am hoping to push for the City to lay substantial fiber within this casing.  As you know, the City lays just enough fiber to cover our own needs, without the extra bandwidth that might be made available to the public. This would be a good opportunity for either the Port or the City to do so.


Larry Horowitz

Aug 23, 2017

Michael, regarding Anacortes, they hired Northwest Open Access Network to conduct a survey of its citizens to gauge public interest in a proposed municipal fiber optic internet network.  Perhaps Bellingham could do the same.

Anacortes to gauge public interest in fiber optic internet




Jon Humphrey

Aug 24, 2017


Above is the link to the Petiton I’ve setup for Publicly Owneder Fiber Optic Internet in Bellingham. As far as the rest goes here is my commentary for Michael.

This is not a new issue. Actions speak louder than words and a Dig Once policy has been on the table for a long time. It’s common sense to establish one and stop delaying to do so, especially as the city continues to install more and more conduit and therefore resources for itself at our expense. You say you support seriously looking into this idea, but we need to do more than just look into it, we need to establish one ASAP. A few token upgrades at the port are a step in the right direction but a far cry from a real Dig Once policy. Satna Monica, CA has establshed the standar for successfully doing so as outlined here. https://muninetworks.org/reports/santa-monica-city-net-case-study Conduit costs almost nothing, especially when compared to the cost of other repairs. A simple street reapir on Holly street from Cornwall to Railraod cost 1.38 Million. The conduit was less than $100,000 of that. The city spent more on drainage for the trees in the area. I have the numbers availalbe from the city if anyone wants them. 

As you know, the city’s role in an OpenAccess network is actually very small with most of the heavy lifting being done by the providers. Secondly, you could certainly have refused to do business with a company that violates the COBs own code of ethics. A company that is attacking the first amendment like CenturyLink is doing just that. So yes we did have options and council members also have a reponsibility to protect our community from predatory companies. Perhaps the city would have had to go to court to defend our position, but that’s what we pay lawyers for. This was easily defensible. Also, I am hardly the first person to bring this issue up and in general the city has ignored it. You’ve had years to bring Chris Mitchell or other public fiber experts in and right now we’re very far behind. 

Here is a cost comparison   of the cost of Gigabit Symmetrical Fiber in other locations

Japan $25.50 a month

Kansas City $70 a month $100 with TV

Hong Kong $24 a month

Again, we are paying the highest prices per MBit for data in the world. With a good internet connection you could get an internet TV provider like SLing for as little as $20 a month. If you could get a reasonably priced, robust internet connection here, like they can in the rest of the developed world, your TV and internet would be $90 a month and robust enough to allow you to expand your small business, and grow in many other ways. Candidates should consider this an election issue. 

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