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COB Broadband Back To The 80s

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Let me start by stating up-front that I am working on public fiber as a volunteer and my interest has no financial benefit to me. I actually want what’s best for Bellingham. And since I outline some criticism of the Bellingham Public Works department, I will also state that I think the people who do the real, physical labor in that department are working very hard. Still, it’s become clear to me that something fishy is going on with city leadership.

Even though 87% of Americans support net-neutrality, we are being pushed into provider-based regulation of our Internet access: anti-net neutrality. Locally, most Bellingham residents have only anti-net neutral choices for broadband access. Our mayor and some council members seem to think this assault on our First Amendment rights is totally acceptable.

Even though they could do something about it immediately by opening existing infrastructure for public use and establishing a Dig Once policy, the city is instead choosing to drag their feet and protect the big telecom companies. Our government is doing this even as heavy hitters like Harvard are showing that Community Broadband Networks are our best choice. Harvard Community Fiber Study In fact, the city went out of its way to support anti-net neutral providers like Comcast and CenturyLink as I’ve written about in previous articles posted here.

The city continues to insist they’ve broken up the Comcast monopoly by bringing in CenturyLink. But CenturyLink’s updated service is only available in limited sections of the city, and regardless, both companies are anti-net neutral, therefore, anti-First Amendment. Neither company offers a good choice for those who care about their constitutional rights.

In this update, there is both good news and bad news. The good news is that we have some real support at the local and state levels now, but we need to move quickly if we hope to protect our rights as Americans. The bad news is big telecoms have proven they are not trustworthy, never will be, and need to be replaced. They also have powerful political allies in our city government.


Recently, the Bellingham Public Works department tried to dodge several e-mails and a public records request for specifics about our existing network. Fortunately, an attorney for the city, James Erb, followed up on the request for receipts and locations for cabling and conduit. Erb said it was disturbing to be told that they have virtually no receipts or other documents for the thousands of dollars they’ve spent on the network over nearly 40-years.

One could speculate the department was withholding information for “security reasons.” Had that been the case, they would have stated it as their reason for not responding to our requests. Instead, they told the city’s attorney that they simply do not have more records.

Keep in mind, there is an understandable, yet disturbing, reason for government entities to skimp on keeping documents: If a document doesn’t exist, when a public records request is made, they have nothing to show and don’t have to produce the record. When Erb pushed for more information, he was allowed to take a picture of the 1980’s style drawing shown above. In 2018, 21 years after the mapping software ArcGIS was released, this is the sketch Bellingham is still using for their fiber network. A drawing might be acceptable if it was accurate and updated, but city officials have said this is not accurate, it’s just the best they have.

So, this picture, along with some old, outdated, school district documents provide an inaccurate picture of locations and capacity. What they do show is that most of our schools are under-served, even though the capacity exists for the city to give them significantly more bandwidth at very low cost.

Public Works Director Ted Carlson is being paid to develop and oversee public infrastructure. At the end of the day, this issue—and others—rests squarely on his shoulders. Under Carlson’s direction, the city has also reneged on its plans to have a third party audit its resources and instead decided to do it in-house. At the November 13th City Council meeting, Carlson stated that an outside audit would cost about $60,000 dollars. Under normal circumstances, I would applaud them for saving money. In this situation, it seems inappropriate for the CoB to audit this in a non-transparent way.

The mayor and some members of the City Council appear to be very friendly to private, anti-net neutral telecoms like Comcast and CenturyLink, and seem to be blocking progress for personal reasons. This was made evident at several meetings over the last year and a half. You can find old COB meetings here. Going forward, I recommend all voters ask the mayoral candidates if they will perform a transparent investigation of the Public Works department if they are elected. Bellingham deserves a mayor and department directors who will work in the interest of the public and not just the top 1%.


The city’s claim that there is nothing they can do for us right now is disingenuous. They contend they need the 2-inch conduit they’re currently installing for their own future expansion. But they have acknowledged that their fiber runs range from 6 strands to 144 strands. Since at least 864 strands of fiber will fit in a 2-inch conduit, and fiber now costs less than fishing line, their conduit provides plenty of room for inexpensive expansion in our existing infrastructure.


In spite of the resistance from the city, there is positive news coming from the state and the Port of Bellingham. I have had several discussions with Michael Shepard, the port commissioner from District 1, about the role the port can play in helping provide net-neutral, local, broadband options to Bellingham. Shepard’s position is that an open network is essential. The port already has the legal framework for public-private partnerships in place.

The port is waiting on HB-6224, and its Senate companion bill, SB-6426, to pass the Legislature. This bill will remove a rural restriction from the bill that prevents ports that have more than 100 people per square mile, like the Port of Bellingham, from expanding in the same manner as smaller ports like the Port of Skagit.

Here is a link for more information. http://app.leg.wa.gov/billsummary?BillNumber=2664&Year=2017

Also, here is a link to find out who your representatives and senators are. http://app.leg.wa.gov/DistrictFinder/

The port’s support is most welcome, and a beacon of hope in this dark time. Still, it is only one of three things we need to happen. The other two are: commitments from the city and county to establish real Dig Once policies, and city/county commitment supporting net-neutral providers and fiber expansion.

There is also some good news coming from the state. I was fortunate to speak with Governor Inslee’s senior policy advisor about ways the
state might promote net-neutral communication. She told me they have plans to help smaller, net-neutral providers expand. One idea is to allow net-neutral providers virtually free
access to state-owned conduit along I-5 and other state roads. This would be a boon for Bellingham, because I-5 runs through a large part of it.

As publicly owned fiber moves forward, we expect serious pushback from the big anti-net neutral telecoms like CenturyLink, Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T. With support on the inside from Mayor Linville, some city staff, and some council members, the fight to get real, next-generation, net-neutral expansion is much harder here than in other places. If we lose this fight, we will continue to fall farther behind other cities in our area, both economically and from a social justice standpoint.

Councilmembers Michael Lilliquist, Roxanne Murphy, and Pinky Vargas have all said, “fiber is inevitable” and pushed for a Dig Once policy at the November 13th council meeting. However, Roxanne has praised CenturyLink at other meetings so it’s tough to get a feel for what is actually going on. In the end, they need our support to move forward with installing public infrastructure because politicians and nation-wide corporations are trying to slow this process, hoping the issue will just go away.


Remember, we already gave enough money to provide every American with fiber-to-home connections of about 1Gbps symmetrical to the big telecoms. That money has disappeared, and the improvements have never been made. We deserve better, especially because we’ve already paid for it. https://nationaleconomicseditorial.com/2017/11/27/americans-fiber-optic-internet/

Even before we lost net-neutrality we were paying some of the highest prices in the developed world for broadband. Don’t believe the big telecom hype. They never have been and never will be trustworthy. All of their speed quotes come with caveats attached to them. All dealings with them are “buyer beware.”

Pricing For Developed Countries

The telecom industry’s attack on net-neutrality is an attack on our core values as Americans. We need to stop doing business with them and we need to stop tolerating politicians and their cronies who protect companies that literally undermine our right to free speech. We need common-sense infrastructure improvements.

Be aware that CenturyLink, Comcast and other telecoms are big advertisers in the Herald and because of that you will never see an article like this in the Herald.
https://justcast.herokuapp.com/shows/kmre-102-3-fm-spark-radio-cascadia-news-now/audioposts/353544 Finally, for more information you can listen to my KMRE interview.

Publisher note: Jon is very committed to bringing public fiber to Bellingham. This commitment does not diminish the news value of this article. He is a voice that needs to be heard and we are pleased he is writing for NW Citizen. You can visit his website and sign his petition at: https://www.change.org/p/mayorsoffice-cob-org-bellingham-public-fiber-optic-network - John Servais

About Jon Humphrey

Writer • 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

David Camp

Feb 14, 2018

Jon - I’m not sure where Mr. Carlsen got his $60,000  audit figure - was there an RFP? DId he solicit bids?  

As a Certified Public Accountant, WA license #30879, I can assure you I could do an audit of the Public Works Department for a fraction of that amount. 


So let’s see an RFP requesting bids for a proper audit of the Public Works Dept.  Not to do this creates an appearance that someone is hiding something and avoiding accountability. 


Jon Humphrey

Feb 14, 2018

Thanks Dave. The 60K figure was mentioned at the November 13th meeting after Carlson was questioned by some of the council members. There have been some strange figures coming out in general. For example, Public Works quoted me about $50K per block for 2x2” conduit installation. They did this only after asking me to remove a public records request and take a phone call instead of receive it in writing. Will they claim a different number later? This makes our per mile install for conduit about $400K. This is about 4 times what it costs for other similar sized cities to install conduit. I have shared documentation with the council, mayor, and policy advisors showing this. This has all been really shady. For example, how can they know they have 144 count fiber, but not know where it is? Which is what they’ve told me and their own lawyers. How can they have contracts with the schools showing 6 to 12 count fiber but not know what the capacity is at all? They might have lost track of some resources, but saying that they have generally no idea is disturbing and shady.  As far as I know there is no RFP yet. I have been given no reason as to why.


Dick Conoboy

Feb 15, 2018


This is excellent reporting.  Thank you very much.  I especially like the Rube Goldberg drawing, a sure testament to the true state of the problem.   The Internet should be treated as a public utility.  So should banks.  All are part of the commons like the air, the water and the earth. 


Jon Humphrey

Feb 15, 2018

Thanks Dick, and congratulations again on your Paul deArmond Citizen Journalism Award! Sorry I could not attend. The most frustrating thing about this is how there really should be no resistance from anyone, but the big telecoms, since it benefits everyone like electricity and roads do. I totally agree with you about the internet beign a public utility. In fact, I think most utilities should be public. Still, let me say that even if you beleive in private services, it still makes sense to have publicly useable infrastructure like conduit, roads, etc. paired with a Dig Once Policy. Why dig up the road 90 times and install 90 seperate privately used fiber lines if you can do it once and the city can make money off of the leases? The only people against this are those that want monopolies. 

A lot of people point to Google Fiber as the way to go, but they forget that Kansas City installed a lot of public infrastructure to help make their city attractive to Google and other providers. Without this infrastructure their options wold not be as good, and they would not have reapred all of the benefits of having cheap, net-neutral, fiber. So fully municipal, through priavte provder leased, this a resource that everyone will benefit from.

Proponents of wireless, for example, often forget to mention that for wireless to work correctly (especailly 5G) you need lots of fiber to back it up with. They also forget to mention the many drawbacks that wireless has compated to fiber, but that would be an article in itself. Anyway, if that fiber is public then every company can get a lease on it, we can require net-neutrality, etc. If not, well then you end up with yet another virtual monopoly that’s probably anti-net neutral. Bottom line, you need fiber to do anything broadband related well and if it’s publily owned everyone benefits. I refer you to this Wired article about wireless. 



Robert Leib

Feb 15, 2018

In 2002 I applied for a job with Avista as a Project Manager to help build a fiber network in Bellingham.  I did not get the job but I was aware that they did a loop in Bellingham.  Later the fiber group bankrupted and I thought I read that the city was taking it over.  I am not sure where to find those records or if we can find something at Avista.  In those days fiber was planted everywhere.  Even Black Rock ran a loop in the county.


Jon Humphrey

Feb 15, 2018

Thanks Robert, that’s very interesting. I do get the sense that over the years there has been a lot of fiber installed and it has chagned hands a lot.  I have met with many different people since I started down this road almost 2 years ago at this point. I keep getting bits and pieces of the historical information. Most of it is good, some of it is inaccurate. The bottom line is that the city needs to do an audit. For the reasons I mentioned above it would be best for a trustworthy 3rd party to do it, but either way they need to be able to tell us where all of the fiber and conduit we already paid for is. This seems like something they should already be expected to be able to do to me, but right now it is what it is. They have told some of our private providers around 2009 and up, “not to use the network because they aren’t really monitoring it and would probably be unaware if a cable was cut and it was not working…” I am paraphrasing here. This seems like a problem with priorities and professinalism to me. In short, it is not a problem with the idea of building a public or private network, but with what we expect for what we’re paying for with our ever increasing taxes. Basically we need to hold our governments, large corporations, etc. accountable. The issue of accountablility seems to be a recurring issue with just about every issue facing Bellingham and the nation lately. 


Robert Leib

Feb 15, 2018

Here is an article from 2000.  I know there is a ton of fiber out there.  They just lost track of it.  https://www.bizjournals.com/seattle/stories/2000/07/17/story8.html



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