pud map

Map shows the boundary (blue) of the proposed Pine Creek fiber project. Red lines indicate current electric infrastructure, which would also be the path of fiber service.

OKANOGAN – A grant proposal seeks funding for a project to provide fiber optics broadband service to 300 homes in the Pine Creek area west on Tonasket.

The Okanogan County Public Utility District has submitted the Pine Creek fiber project for grant funding through the state Department of Commerce and National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Total project cost would be $5.5 million.

Manager of Broadband Services John MacDonald presented the project at the PUD commissioners’ July 12 meeting. The Pine Creek area was one of many identified by local broadband action teams and is noted by the Federal Communications Commission as “unserved.” It also has challenges with cellular or traditional phone lines.

Nearly 500 poles already need replacement in that area, so the PUD would match up to 10 percent of the funding with in-kind, make-ready work to upgrade infrastructure to get ready for fiber deployment, and by providing a project manager.

If the state accepts the project, it would be part of a number of projects the state would then submit to NTIA for funding. Without grant funding, the high expense of the project per customer - on average $17,000 per customer - would make it not feasible, MacDonald said.

With grant funding, the only customer expense would be the charges from retail Internet service providers. Several providers already have agreed to offer service in the area if fiber is added.

MacDonald said customers in the Pine Creek area have approached the PUD many times for service, but the cost has been prohibitive. If the project could come to fruition, it would be a great opportunity for businesses and homes in the area.

The state will announce selected projects late this month. If funded, the project has a tentative construction time frame of summer 2022.

In other business, the board:

-Heard from Director of Power Resources and Broadband Services Ron Gadeberg that June was an “unheard of month.” The heat wave affected wholesale power pricing so much that the PUD spent $718,847 on power in a month when it was expected to make money on wholesale sales instead.

Power costs ranged from single digits to more than $300 per megawatt.

On the retail side, May came in over budget for revenue by about $435,000, and June is likely to be higher than budgeted too.

-Heard an update on COVID-19 policies, including the expected-to-be final extension to Sept. 30 of the state moratorium on disconnections because of non-payment. The board will open its meetings to in-person public attendance and keep the Zoom option.

-Heard that steel poles for the rebuild of the Okanogan-Brewster transmission line had begun to arrive. Construction was set to begin on July 19.

-Learned documentation had been submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for reimbursement on three disasters in 2020: January winter storm damage, $85,522; Palmer Fire, $45,253, and Cold Springs Fire, $6,756,772.

-Declared as surplus several failed pieces of equipment for the broadband department.

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