PUD fiber buildout set for 2019

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Cheryl Schweizer/Columbia Basin Herald Russ Brethower was recognized for 15 years of service at the Grant County PUD during the commission meeting Tuesday. Brethower updated commissioners on the 2019 fiber buildout plans.

EPHRATA — Where Grant County PUD’s fiber optic buildout goes from here was the subject of discussion at the regular commission meeting Tuesday.

Utility district officials have selected a contractor to work on the buildout, said Russ Brethower, who oversees the fiber program. At the Nov. 13 meeting commissioners decided to add more money to the buildout project, with the goal of finishing it in five years. Commissioners decided to allocate $12.5 million for 2019, in addition to about $2.7 to $3 million allocated for 2018, but not spent.

Commissioners decided to allocate enough money, estimated at about $12.5 million per year for 2020-23, to finish the project.

“We chose to do a five-year contract, the first time we’ve tried that,” Brethower said. “We found as we were trying to gear up for 2018, the contractor was having a struggle getting people to come for the 2018 project when the contract was going to end in 2018.”

Five companies submitted proposals, Brethower said, with the contract awarded to North Sky Communications, the current contractor.

About 70 percent of PUD customers currently have access to the fiber network; getting fiber to the remaining 30 percent, mostly in rural areas, has been the subject of years-long discussion. For 2018 PUD commissioners allocated $7 million to expand the system.

“We have a lofty goal,” for 2019, Brethower said, Utility district officials want to increase participation from current customers to 56.5 percent. “Plus we’re going to expand. Generally expansion drives your take rate down,” at least temporarily, he said.

Commissioner Bob Bernd said he thought participation in rural areas might be higher because there’s no competition for those customers. So far, that’s proving to be the case, Brethower said.

With the extra money it should be possible to speed up the project, he said. In answer to a question from commissioner Dale Walker, Brethower said a schedule is being written for 2019, and a plan will be prepared for 2020. “We’ll try not to create expectations for the customers of the timing beyond 2019.” The actual schedule will depend on decisions made by the commissioners each year, he said.

But “proceeding through the buildout schedule that is on the (PUD website) is still the plan,” said chief executive officer Kevin Nordt. “It’s just really a question of how much money gets authorized in any given year.”

With the amount of money allocated for 2019, Brethower said the target for next year is the first nine projects on the list. Those include Crescent Bar-off island and Trinidad, expansion in the Beverly and Schwana areas, Sunland Estates, completion of the Coulee City area, the Blue Lake-Park Lake areas, the Ancient Lakes-White Trail area, the McConihe-Neppel-Stonecrest area and the area along Patton Boulevard, as well as Kittelson and Wheeler roads, and the industrial properties on Road N.

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

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