Could publicly owned high-speed internet bring more high-wage jobs to Bellingham?
While private internet providers continue expanding their high-speed internet offerings in the city, Bellingham resident Jon Humphrey thinks the city can take after the example set by nearby Mount Vernon, which has built a fiber optic backbone to provide internet to government offices and businesses.
Fiber optic cables can transmit data at much faster speeds than traditional copper cables, especially for uploads. Think speeds of 1,000 megabits per second (also known as 1 gigabit per second), as opposed to more common 10, 25, or 75 Mbps speeds.
Humphrey, who has years of experience in information technology, said he explains fiber vs. cable to kids very simply: It’s like the difference between using a squirt gun to fight a fire vs. a hose.
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“It’s that much of a difference and that much of an improvement,” Humphrey said. “I know especially for next-generation businesses, this is part of an infrastructure they need.”
For about a year, Humphrey has been trying to get Bellingham officials on board with the idea of public fiber in the city, but at the moment it is not a priority for the city, according to Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville.
City Council member Michael Lilliquist said he thinks it’s something worth at least studying, to see whether it could be worthwhile.
“In my most recent conversation with the mayor we talked about doing explorations about what other communities are doing,” Lilliquist said, but pointed out nothing is ready to bring forward at the moment. “The question is what role might local government play in ensuring there is broadband access widely available, and affordable.”
Lilliquist said he thinks the government can help promote job creation by providing infrastructure.
“We don’t want a bigger city, we want a more prosperous city,” Lilliquist said. “How do you make the jobs better? You make them a different kind of job. You can make that possible if you have the infrastructure for those kinds of businesses.”
Just a half-hour away, Mount Vernon has a public fiber backbone that allows private companies to connect customers to speeds that are 100 times faster than other internet offered in that area.
The goal? To attract businesses that need those blazing fast speeds, and keep existing businesses in town rather than see them move away for better services, said Kim Kleppe, Mount Vernon’s information services director.
$129,000 about how much the first half of Mount Vernon’s fiber ring cost when completed in 1999
$500,000 cost to complete second half of fiber ring in 2001, which came from a state grant
For example, a legal firm from Seattle that works in digital forensics moved to Mount Vernon from Seattle because they couldn’t afford the infrastructure for the speeds they needed there, Kleppe said.
The city gets a minimum 15 percent of what each of the several internet service providers gross, Kleppe said. The providers handle the customer end of things, including complaints and billing.
For government entities, deploying fiber for your own uses can be a huge savings in phone and internet costs alone, Kleppe said. The city’s fiber ring, built in phases from the late 1990s on, connects City Hall, the police department, Skagit 911, courts, schools, and more.
As for other users, getting connected to the underground fiber network can be costly, which is why the focus has been to connect with businesses, rather than residences, he said.
(Connecting) gets spendy to do, so we only do businesses. Even though you’ve got hundreds of people that want to get hooked up because they are sick of their service, and that’s true around the country.
Kim Kleppe, Mount Vernon I.S. Director
While the cost to connect can be as low as about $350 in areas with predesigned distribution points that are easier to hook into, it can be as much as $5,000 or $10,000 if underground work is involved, Kleppe said.
“That gets spendy to do, so we only do businesses,” Kleppe said. “Even though you’ve got hundreds of people that want to get hooked up because they are sick of their service, and that’s true around the country.”
Existing Bellingham fiber
The city of Bellingham already has a fiber optic cable network that provides internet to government buildings and departments, and connects to traffic signals, cameras, radio towers, water and sewer stations, and more, according to Clark Williams, superintendent of traffic, communications, fleet and facilities for Public Works.
In the early 2000s, the city expanded that network through joint projects with Whatcom County, Western Washington University, Bellingham School District, the Port of Bellingham, Washington State Department of Transportation, Whatcom Transportation Authority and, at the time, the Public Utility District No. 1, Williams said.
The city bought the utility district’s fiber in the downtown area for $126,198 in 2004.
Unlike Mount Vernon, Bellingham’s fiber infrastructure was not designed to be public, Williams said.
The utility district fiber, which is a small portion of that network, was bought, “with the caveat that it was to be used to benefit other governmental agencies and not to be used for public retail broadband,” Williams wrote.
Meanwhile, the Port of Bellingham has about 13 miles of fiber at both Bellingham International Airport and waterfront properties, meant to connect Port tenants who may be in areas that aren’t reached by other service providers.
Similar to Mount Vernon, the Port of Bellingham allows internet service providers to lease the conduit to provide service to customers.
Most recently, on Aug. 16, the Port of Bellingham Commission approved a 10-year lease with Wave Division Holdings, allowing the company to lease all port conduits to provide service to additional businesses.
The lease payment over 10 years is $94,200, and unlike Mount Vernon, the Port does not get a percentage of the revenue, Port Executive Director Rob Fix said.
The lease isn’t for exclusive use, so the Port can lease the conduit to other interested providers as well, Fix said in an email.