By Marcy Stamper
Large wooden spools wound with beefy black fiber-optic cables being strung on power poles around the Methow are the final phase in a PUD project that will extend the possibility of high-speed broadband connections to about 80 percent of the utility’s customers.
The Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) is installing 200 miles of fiber-optic cables through a project funded three years ago by the federal Stimulus Act to bring high-speed Internet service to underserved areas, according to Ron Gadeberg, the PUD’s director of power resources and broadband services.
As part of the project, the PUD is installing 143 additional wireless access points on its existing powerline route, although each pole involved will be replaced with a taller one.
Once the installation is completed – most likely by the end of the year – the PUD’s fiber-optic backbone will go from Pateros to Twisp along Highway 153 and from Pateros to the Canadian border along Highway 97. Spurs will serve Loomis and Conconully. Omak and Okanogan were already considered adequately served and were not included in the upgrade, said Gadeberg.
Some people who will now have the option of faster Internet connections were previously served only by dial-up or satellite services, said Gadeberg. Even with the expanded “last-mile” network, “there are still tons of unmet needs, because it’s such a big county and some people are so remote that it is cost-prohibitive to serve them,” he said.
The PUD’s network is wholesale and the district contracts with five Internet service providers around the county, who offer connections to retail customers. Although the PUD operates the network, the broadband service is available to anyone who can obtain a signal, including customers of other utilities.
The Internet signals will be available either through direct fiber-optic links or line-of-sight wireless transceivers, which will transmit the signal for a minimum radius of 1.5 miles – and up to 8 miles with an unimpeded line of sight, said Gadeberg. People close enough to the poles can get even faster connections by directly connecting to the fiber-optic line.
Methownet.com, based in Winthrop, uses the PUD’s fiber network south of Twisp and serves customers from Twisp through Mazama with its own fiber and wireless network. They will be able to offer connections to people south of Carlton once the PUD has finished the installation, according to Methownet.com co-owner Maria Converse.
NCIData.com and the local phone company, CenturyLink, also offer Internet connections in many parts of the county.
The PUD’s contractor, Potelco, started the fiber-optic installation in February. They are currently connecting fiber near Twisp and will continue south through Pateros, where it will tie in with the utility’s existing fiber network, said Gadeberg. The cables and wireless points are also being installed on the PUD’s power poles for about three miles up Twisp River Road.
The PUD received a $5.5 million grant and $3.7 million loan to extend the wholesale network through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (better known as the Stimulus Act), which also created jobs in construction and installation, said Gadeberg.
An interactive map on the PUD’s broadband website at www.okpudbb.org provides an idea of whether people can obtain coverage at a particular address.