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Owning fiber, town considering broadband expansion


Coulee Dam wants to know if its residents would like high-speed internet access through a fiber-optic broadband network it's considering building, some of it just for its own use and savings.

After researching the origin of some 96 strands of fiber that crosses the Columbia River in a city power conduit underneath the bridge, the city purchased for $34,995 the fiber that winds through west Coulee Dam, crosses the bridge and actually supplies broadband internet access to some enterprises on the east side, not all of which have been paying for the access.

Councilmember Keith St. Jeor told the council last Wednesday night that the the town could save itself more than $10,000 a year by switching its phone systems to a digital one and hooking all its own facilities together, from city hall to the water and sewer plants on the other side of town.

St. Jeor said several entities in town are hooked up to the fiber now, but not paying for it, at least not to the city.

He said the Grand Coulee Dam School District has a contract to use two strands for $170 a month, but no one else using it has been paying for it.

"Right now, we're kind of in the grey area of gifting of (public) funds," St. Jeor said.

He said the purchase of the fiber from its former owner was incentivized, in part, by a desire to keep those enterprises supplied with broadband, legally.

St. Jeor recommended the city pursue lease contracts with the Colville Tribes and the school district.

"The credit union ... gets their fiber optic connection from Country Cable," St. Jeor said, but he noted that the internet service provider hasn't paid their bill in two years or renewed their franchise with the town.

Whether service would eventually be offered to residences is unclear. But St. Jeor said the city should at least purchase the necessary equipment for a head end to the system at a cost of about $125,000. That would bring the town into a modern communications system that cost about $10 per line instead of $50 and would allow many connected services not currently available, including the possibility of a security camera connection between the school and police, remote connections to automatic equipment in the water and sewer plants, and more.

However, he estimated that putting fiber on every pole in town, which would make it possible to supply homes with high-speed internet and internet-protocol phone service, would cost the town up to $700,000.

Other council members wanted more information, and to gauge the the market in town for secure, fast internet service. The city mailed out, in its utility bills this week, a piece of paper with 16 questions.

Those ask if residents are happy with their current services, whether they would like to have service that's 30 times faster, who their television provider is, and more.

Mayor Larry Price said the city should get a good read on what citizens want before pursuing the greater expense, but he offered that a positive response of, say, 60 percent would definitely warrant a serious look at hanging fiber all around town.

St. Jeor directed council members to a Youtube video to watch about the small town of Ammon, Idaho on what bringing fiber into its town did for that community.

The "Ammon Model" is pointed to as an alternative that mixes public and private investment, similar to what Washington state public utility districts have done: building the infrastructure, but allowing private enterprise to use it to compete in an open marketplace.

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