Editor’s Note: The following was written as a letter to the mayor of Bellingham and members of the Bellingham City Council.
Over the years, I have worked representing community needs to government authorities in a variety of countries, specifically related to community development and health issues. Through my research and field work, I have come to understand that representing the needs of local citizens involves dialogue, participation and adequate representation of diverse community voices and interests.
One challenge in creating advisory committees that truly represent the public interest is ensuring that those with power do not have the loudest representational voice. It is easy for corporate, or vested interests, to take a predominant place at the table since they often have invested capital and the legitimacy of trained and paid expertise in their fields. As I am sure you are aware, this is an enduring challenge for local government.
This brings me to the formation of Bellingham’s long-awaited Broadband Advisory Group. Our much anticipated advisory group is critical to aid in addressing issues that will only grow with time: issues concerning the digital divide and equal access to high-speed internet connectivity as well as discernment around the health and safety of our digital infrastructure. High-speed internet is dependent on fiber-optic networks and these networks are most affordable when they are community owned and brought to each building as an essential utility infrastructure, as done in many European countries.
Unfortunately, for the wireless industry, community owned fiber-optic networks are not the most profitable option, putting the interests of corporations like Comcast, Verizon, CenturyLink and AT&T at odds with community owned fiber infrastructure. In her recent groundbreaking work, “Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution — and Why America Might Miss It” (Yale University Press, 2018), Professor Susan Crawford details the corporate assault on America’s community owned public fiber networks. Make no mistake: like the automobile industry dismantled the American public tram system of the early 20th century, the telecommunications industry has fought public fiber each step of the way.
It is imperative that we limit the corporate representation on Bellingham’s Broadband Advisory Group. This is important to ensure that the successful broadband future of Bellingham is in the public interest. If we solve the issues of the digital divide rather than favor representing the interests of large telecommunications companies, we create a more equitable future for a greater number of Bellingham residents, and foster trust between our communities and our local government.
Since applications to the Broadband Advisory Group are accessible to the public record, the Bellingham-based group Whatcom Citizens for Responsible Technology has been made aware of potential candidates. The public in Bellingham needs to be aware that, currently, representatives of major telecoms industries such as Comcast and CenturyLink, as well as others, are vying for positions on the advisory group. This dynamic could influence the daily lives of Bellingham residents and their ability to access good and affordable internet.
While on a resume, a telecommunications affiliate may have the necessary technical experience, we need to ask: will their corporate affiliations create a conflict of interest? Since community owned fiber networks are not very profitable to telecommunications companies, I would strongly argue that yes, there is a strong case for this causing a major conflict of interest. Could this undermine public policies that could influence equal access and healthy, safe and effective technologies for Bellingham? Most definitely, and, if we want to support Bellingham’s broadband future, the members need to be overridingly citizen representatives who are socially invested in Bellingham and understand what is at stake. An example of two such individuals, who have applied to be members of the Broadband Advisory Group, are Jon Humphrey and Atul Deshmane, both of whom have been volunteering tirelessly for policies that would lessen the digital divide and make high-speed internet affordable for Bellingham residents, such as community fiber and the DigOnce policy.
The decision concerning which members will be chosen for the advisory group will ultimately fall to Mayor Seth Fleetwood with approval from members of the City Council. It is their responsibility to represent Bellingham residents’ need for safe, secure and high-speed internet.
I strongly urge Mayor Fleetwood to limit members who have worked for telecoms companies in the past to one or less members of the advisory group in order to ensure public confidence in the group. I would also like to express my strong support for Jon Humphrey (with his extensive technical knowledge) and Atul Deshmane (with his firm commitment to equal access) as ideal members to support the Broadband Advisory Group.
Kevin Bardosh, Ph.D., is an anthropologist and public health researcher with longstanding expertise in community engagement and citizen participation in global health and environmental issues. Among other things, he is currently working on a project exploring the politics of knowledge related to our wireless radiation health and safety guidelines, including the role of lobbyists and corporations. You can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.