A $27.3 million federal economic stimulus grant promises cutting-edge fiber optic Internet service for southern Pend Oreille County, if officials accept it.
In announcing the grant Monday, U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell said it would bring affordable broadband service to as many as 3,200 households and 360 businesses.
Residents of the rural county would have access to service at least as good as they could get in the most posh Spokane neighborhoods.
And Pend Oreille County businesses would be on equal footing with their downtown Spokane counterparts.
The grant would enable the Pend Oreille Public Utility District to add fiber optic cable to its electrical distribution system throughout the part of the county south of Usk.
“We’re excited about the opportunity to bring some service to a lot of people in our county who don’t have it,” said Bob Geddes, the district’s general manager.
Regulations prevent the utility district from using the grant in the north county territory of Pacific Telephone Co., which already has federal funding to provide fiber optic service.
Geddes emphasized that, although the district’s commissioners sought the grant, they haven’t decided whether to accept it. They have 30 days to do so.
The grant requires the PUD to put up $3.9 million in cash and gives it credit for $2.9 million worth of in-kind services – mainly the value of a fiber optic line the district built in 1996.
That line runs from Boundary Dam, near the Canadian border, to Newport – generally along the Pend Oreille Valley Railroad tracks.
Currently, most county residents rely on dial-up, telephone-based DSL, wireless or satellite Internet service. Depending on how much speed customers want to buy, fiber optic service can blow away the competition.
A low-end DSL connection – all that’s available in many areas – can move data at a rate of 1.5 megabits per second. A standard cable Internet connection is capable of 12 megabits per second.
Wireless connections theoretically can deliver 54 megabits per second but typically fall far short of that rate because of factors such as radio interference.
But a fiber optic connection can deliver 10 gigabits – 10,000 megabits – per second.
“I think it’s an economic-development driver, and it adds value to your home to have it available even if you don’t take the service,” said John Jordan, the utility district’s finance director. “It is the ultimate in broadband connectivity.”
And the price is about the same as for a comparable wireless network, Jordan said.
Melannie Jones, vice president of Pend Oreille Valley Network, a Newport-based Internet service provider, said the federal grant is “a very good thing” for customers with limited options.
She said her company can’t serve some customers with DSL, which is limited by the quality of telephone lines, and wireless, which often is hampered by mountainous terrain. For many, that leaves dial-up.
“What you can do with the Internet is so far advanced that dial-up just can’t handle it,” Jones said.
Under state law, the PUD can provide only whole service to retail Internet service providers. It has no control over the service providers’ rates, but Jordan anticipates retailers will offer connections at 2, 10 and 100 megabits and 1 gigabit.
Connections faster than 10 megabits probably would be used only by businesses, he said.