Microsoft contributes to George fiber project

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EPHRATA — Microsoft executives have announced the company will contribute $200,000 to the cost of extending the Grant County PUD fiber backbone to George. The decision to do so was made at the regular meeting of the PUD commissioners March 27.

The contribution will pay about half the cost of extending fiber to George, said Ryan Holterhoff of the PUD’s public affairs office.

Holterhoff said the buildout is projected to reach George by the end of 2018. George is the only incorporated city in Grant County that doesn’t have fiber, said PUD commission president Terry Brewer.

The PUD has been building a fiber network since 2007, and it’s available to about 70 percent of PUD customers. Getting it to the remaining 30 percent was the object of a yearlong study, and has been the subject of numerous conversations at PUD meetings.

Utility district officials recommended suspending the build, citing the cost. Commissioners decided to allocate $7 million to the project for 2018, but made some changes, requiring guarantees from potential customers before construction begins.

Utility district employees have been studying where and when to build next since January. “It is anticipated the fiber group will be presenting to the (PUD) commission to discuss that buildout plan,” Holterhoff said.

People have expressed interest in committing to use the fiber network. But the criteria for expansion — how many people will be enough — is one of the subjects under study.

County residents interested in forming an advisory board for the fiber network and the remaining buildout has approached the PUD.

In addition, commissioners decided to review the program every year, to determine whether or not it’s still economically feasible to continue. The criteria for that process also is part of the study.

Utility district officials also experimented with a wireless system to provide improved connectivity to customers. But the study commissioned determined the wireless system operated at a loss, and it would be difficult to make it profitable. The wireless system will be maintained, but won’t be expanded.

The PUD doesn’t sell wireless service directly to customers; state law prohibits direct retail service. The utility sells access to the network to Internet service providers.

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