Fiber options detailed at PUD workshop

Cheryl Schweizer/Columbia Basin Herald Grant County PUD chief financial officer John Janney details some of the results of a study of the districtís fiber program at a workshop Monday.

WANAPUM DAM ó Grant County PUD commissioners heard a list of options for the districtís fiber program during a workshop Monday.

Utility district commissioners had requested a review of the program, wanting an estimate of the overall cost of the fiber buildout and wanting to know if the wireless component was meeting its goals. Commissioners wanted the information before making decisions about the fiber programís future.

The review found the fiber network has reached about 70 percent of the county, and that about 45 percent of the customers who could be using it have signed on. The wireless program was designed as a supplement to the fiber buildout, reaching customers who otherwise couldnít hook into high-speed internet. It reaches about 5 percent of the PUDís customers, and is in use by 211 people, about 7 percent of the potential customers.

As of February 2017 the total investment is about $242 million, said PUD chief financial officer John Janney. That includes the cost of construction and maintenance, continuing operation, labor and material costs and paying back the debt.

Utility district officials hired a consulting firm to help with the review. Consultant Doug Dawson laid out some of the conclusions during the workshop.

The good news for the PUD is the network itís built will be competitive for the foreseeable future, Dawson said. But there are private businesses working on expanding into rural markets. There is a federal initiative to expand DSL service in rural areas, with grants to large telecommunications companies. But that project probably will be inadequate by the time itís finished, Dawson said.

The study laid out a number of options for the fiber systemís future. The PUD could stop the project where it is or it could continue to expand. The study looked at expansion over five years and 10 years. The PUD could continue adding wireless, or could build a mix of fiber and wireless. Or PUD officials could wait to build until enough customers are committed to take the service in a given area.

According to the study results, staying with the current system would generate enough money to keep the program in the black at 20 years and 30 years. But it wouldnít generate enough to pay back the initial investment or pay interest. The system loses money when the fiber system is built out, either over five years or 10 years. The system also loses money when the PUD builds a mix of fiber and wireless.

Cheryl Schweizer can be reached via email at education@columbiabasinherald.com.

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