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COB Puts The BAG In A Box

Since the City of Bellingham decided not to broadcast or record the first meeting of the Broadband Advisory Group in an open manner, I think it’s important that we keep tabs on the meetings. I was able to request a special Zoom link and attend. All of the requisites I am about to describe were laid down in this meeting by Eric Johnston, the public works director. The mayor and City Council, with the exception of Lisa Anderson, approved a resolution, outlining strict parameters of the scope the BAG may explore in determining Bellingham’s digital future. They did this to appease the big telecoms.

1. Eric advised the BAG members not to put anything in writing.

Eric said the COB has a motto, “If you don’t want it on the front page of the Herald, then don’t put it in an e-mail.” So apparently, our city has a longstanding policy of not allowing the public to see what is going on and they advise each other not to record things.

2. Eric forbids BAG members to discuss anything but fiber.

Eric specifically told them they are not allowed to discuss satellite, wireless, or other technologies, including obsolete ones like DSL and cable, or anything with DSL or cable in them. This means they are not allowed to discuss Comcast, CenturyLink, Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, etc. Since these companies serve nearly all of Bellingham, discussion will be severely limited. One wonders how they can compare technology options if they can’t talk about various technologies, how they work, and how much they cost. This restriction becomes particularly onerous because all of these big telecom services need fiber to work, but none of them work as well as fiber and they all cost too much and are generally less reliable than fiber.

Further, BAG members aren’t allowed to discuss, or recommend, the placement of low-cost wireless APs (access points). These “hot spots” would extend free public access during the pandemic and/or into the future using our existing fiber network; the Bellingham libraries have already done this but without the help of the COB, even though they are hooked up to the COB’s public network. The libraries had to seek funding from the Friends of the Library and the state. The COB would not help.

These are blatant attempts by Eric Jonston (COB public works director) and Marty Mulholland (COB IT Director and Big Telecom Policy Expert) to protect special interests and keep a vital discussion from happening. It is also a violation of BAG member’s First Amendment rights.

The exact statement in Section 3e reads:

“e. The Workgroup and Consultant shall focus on broadband and fiber optic networks and the use of the city’s fiber optic network to potentially expand quality, access, equity, and affordability and shall not investigate other forms of telecommunication services providing broadband including cellular, cable, digital subscriber line, or satellite services, except insofar as they directly relate to fiber optic networks.”

3. The city absolutely refuses to record these meetings.

Do I really need to remind anyone that we are in the middle of a pandemic and Zoom is our only access to governmental proceedings that we used to be able to physically attend? The city says they may broadcast them publicly in the future, but they are still refusing to record them. Apparently, hitting RECORD on Zoom is too hard, although other public organizations do that all of the time. For example, the PUD posts their Zoom links publicly, records their meetings, has a public comment period, and then posts them on their website. Eric is requiring a pre-pandemic standard for workgroups where the public was only allowed to attend, never comment, and the meetings were not recorded or broadcast. This was obviously never acceptable.
 

Because of an initial backlash from the public demanding more transparency, future BAG meetings will be live broadcast, instead of requiring a special link, but they are still refusing to record them. In fact, questions from the public, according to Eric, are being put through a “clearing house” where he will decide what questions, if any, are asked. They are pretending they don’t have the resources to record the meetings, but that simply isn’t true. It’s not hard or expensive. They just want to hold them in secret to appease their big telecom buddies and other special interests.

4. The COB kept all of their special interest members.

The BAG consists of 18 members: nine voting members and nine non-voting; even though Michael Lilliquist said he didn’t see any real value to representatives from big telecom, all the ex-officio telecom members are included. In fact, seven of the nine are sure to defend and promote big telecom. Comcast chose Vincent Buys, an ex-officio member with no technical skill who supported white nationalist extremist, Matt Shea on several bills including gender discrimination. I guess Comcast and the city are really willing to scrape bottom to protect their interests. CenturyLink also gets a representative of their choosing, while WAVE gets two non-voting members: one from MOX communications, who works closely with WAVE; and one from WAVE itself. In fact, WAVE is a big winner because of the nine voting members, they got Milissa Miller, who spent most of her career working for WAVE.
 

So apparently, including someone like me, who would have questioned policies that were against the public interest, was against the sensibilities of our government. But allowing a disgraced former state representative, with no technical background, that supports white nationalist Matt Shea, to represent Comcast is totally fine. Because out of Comcast’s 190,000 employees, our city couldn’t have asked for, and Comcast just couldn’t have sent, anyone else.

So WAVE ends up with a voting member and two non-voting members, but the Port, PUD, schools, and libraries get no vote? Remember, the libraries still have no representation at all in this group even though they are the only public entity that actually put-up access points during the pandemic. As you may recall, the COB did not help them with this. The libraries had to get funding from the Friends of the Library and the state.

I should note that they did ultimately add Michael Gan from the Technology Alliance Group.

5. The BAG will have their questions answered by this heavily biased panel of mostly special interest experts.

When asked if other experts like Chris Mitchell, from Community Broadband Networks; or Kim Kleppe, IT director for Mount Vernon; or a representative from Anacortes could attend, the answer was “maybe.” When Max Carper asked if I could attend meetings, Eric told him that he would produce other documentation instead. 
 

6. Because of the restrictive City Council resolution, anything the BAG wants outside the constricted parameters, must be specifically approved by the council. Unfortunately, council always defers to Eric Johnston and Marty Mulholland, who always protect special interests.

When BAG members asked about expanding their scope to include comparing a variety of available broadband solutions, they were told doing so would need to be considered by the council and specifically approved. Obviously, it is inappropriate and disturbing that the scope of this group has been so confined. It will be nearly impossible to make well-reasoned decisions on crucial, affordable, infrastructure. Is this really what we wanted? Of course not. But Seth and the council already know that, and what we may want is not the issue.
 

7. Eric tried to make the meetings monthly, showing again, that he either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about the urgency of this issue. The BAG rejected his suggestion and is going to meet bi-weekly instead.

8. Hiding behind the homeless.

Some may feel this section is unfair, however, for as long as I’ve been covering politics in Bellingham, I have seen our government do very little for the homeless, other than use them as cover when it comes to getting anything else done. How many times have we heard, “We can’t do anything because we’re dealing with the homelessness crisis, or COVID-19, or both”? To this I say, good, you should be doing something about that! However, the bar was set so low that any effort would have been considered progress. In an emergency situation, the failure to address the homelessness crisis falls to the mayor, our executives, and his staff, although the council has influence on critical issues too, and so shares the blame.
 

While the Fleetwood administration has done a bit more than the Linville administration: building some low-income housing, and investigating some emergency shelter locations, their efforts have been inadequate and quarter-assed at best.

If only some local government official would have realized that a strong broadband response could be part of a whole-system response that was necessary during the pandemic. Free broadband would give everyone, including the homeless, access to telemedicine, schools, the job market, and other services. It would reduce expenses as people’s jobs have been slashed. It has been 322 days since the lockdown and not a single external access point has been hooked up to our existing fiber network by the COB or our schools.

9. The city does NOT care about diversity.

The city continually parrots how much they care about diversity, but if they cared about diversity, they would have leveraged our existing fiber optic network to address the digital divide. We even offered to hook up the equipment for them as volunteers, but nope. Also, with the exception of Lisa Anderson, our council and mayor green lighted putting Matt Shea supporter Vincent Buys on the panel of “experts” as mentioned above. So it’s time to move past the city saying it cares, because they actually don't.  Let’s see some action instead, because the digital divide affects our poor and minority communities more than anyone else.
 

 

So in the end, the BAG has intentionally been put in a box to protect the finances of special interests. I have a feeling many of the members may rebel, but will council listen to them? Probably not. The fix was already in when they allowed Eric, Marty, and their special interest friends to draft a resolution that tied the hands of this important group. Pathetically, Seth and the council, with the exception of Lisa Anderson, rubber stamped the resolution anyway.

I suspect there will be unrecorded conversations about this article among the mayor, council, and city staff; just like Eric recommends. Remember, according to Eric, it’s the COB motto not to record or write things down. It probably is the best way to deal with the pesky public.

Comments by Readers

Thomas R. Scott

Feb 07, 2021

Not a good look.  Bad policy.

Not a lawyer, wondering if illegal depending and how the BAG is characterized with respect to the State’s Open Meetings law.  Maybe that is part of naming the body a “Group” instead of a “Commission” given that commissions are one of the defined groups in RCW 42.30.020(b).

FWIW, I applied and never heard back.

Realistically the B in BAG is a misnomer if only considering fiber.  Plus, very short-sighted.  There are applications for copper broadband.

I may not agree with Mr. Humphrey on all points in the past or even above.  I don’t care for what seems ad hominem in a couple places.  However, I’m 100% with him and his article regarding the carefully crafted “boxing” of the Group AND the abject lack of openness.  It is hard not to be cynical on both points.  AND, the comment regarding current State, County and City public CoViD restrictions to access is spot on.

I can’t figure how these actions can be rationalized by the Mayor or any of the Council.

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katharine gring

Feb 07, 2021

I have no knowledge of the issues here, no background in the topic, but I am dissatisfied with my internet access (Comcast).  Why does the BAG say they are narrowing the scope of discussions? Isn’t fiber the state of the art internet access? What does “ex-officio” mean in this context? 

It does seem like the Port, Schools, Libraries and the PUD ahould be involved in this discussion. My first question to the BAG is why they are not. I am also curious about the background of all the members, voting and non-voting.

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Shawn Alexander

Feb 08, 2021

I am shocked that a non-profit wireless  ISP is not being considered. I live on Orcas Island where 6 years ago we had no broadband options. We started the Doe Bay Internet Users Association, and it has been well worth the effort.

 

A group of 5 residents set up our own wireless network and we have supplied 70 or so neighbors with bandwidth for streaming for $45 a month and we did it with five volunteer board members.  

We borrowed some money for the initial startup and paid it all back within the first 2 years.

 

 In the beginning we had no other options for high-speed service and now we use trees and water towers as our towers, and we set up a microwave link to out nearest wholesale provider 20 miles or so away.

 

My simple message would be for interested parties look at the resources that are around you, that is what we did years ago, and we took the plunge and set up an ISP and it is a self-sufficient non-profit.  Fiber is clearly the best, but it is not the only method to connect and to exclude all other forms of service is artificially limiting your options and a disservice to those you serve.

 

Bellingham can do even better with all the resources available to the City.

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