PUD fiber build will require new policies

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EPHRATA — The expansion of the Grant County PUD’s fiber system won’t resume until utility district officials and commissioners make some decisions on how to proceed.

Commissioners have been discussing what to do about the fiber network for most of 2017, and decided at the Nov. 14 meeting to continue expansion. Currently the fiber network is available to about 70 percent of the PUD’s customers.

Utility district staff had recommended stopping the expansion for the time being, but commissioners opted to continue, allocating about $7 million for expansion in 2018. The challenge facing commissioners, said commissioner Tom Flint, is how to decide where to build next.

Commissioners decided to keep expanding, but to concentrate on areas where there’s a high probability customers will use fiber. Ensuring customer interest might include a commitment from customers, and commissioner Dale Walker asked what form that would take.

The PUD can’t provide fiber directly to consumers; the utility only can provide wholesale service. Walker said the commitments to the PUD would have to come from service providers, and he asked how that would work.

General manager Kevin Nordt said that was an example of the questions that had to be answered before expansion can proceed. In addition, said commissioner Larry Schaapman, expansion will have to make economic sense for the PUD.

“You might have 100 percent participation in a 10-mile radius, but there’s only two people there,” Schaapman said, and in that case expansion would be too expensive.

Commissioners also approved raising the fee charged to service providers by $3 per customer. The commissioners also added a “retransmission fee” for service providers who provide access to wireless customers.

Wireless access providers were paying for the hookup to the PUD’s fiber system, but that was all. The new fee schedule includes three levels, and the fee increases as the service provider needs more capacity.

Commissioner Tom Flint asked if the PUD had any way to ensure customers were getting the service they paid for. There are cases where the service provider isn’t providing good service, Flint said, but the PUD is getting blamed.

Nordt said PUD officials are working on making sure the utility’s role in the process is understood.

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