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Avista to offer internet services through new subsidiary, launches pilot program with City of Cheney

Mark Gustafson, president and CEO of Avista Edge, and Mark Schuller, city administrator for the city of Cheney, are rolling out a broadband pilot program in a bid to provide high-speed internet to select Cheney neighborhoods this winter. The technology uses a device, foreground, that attaches to a home’s electric meter.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Mark Gustafson, president and CEO of Avista Edge, and Mark Schuller, city administrator for the city of Cheney, are rolling out a broadband pilot program in a bid to provide high-speed internet to select Cheney neighborhoods this winter. The technology uses a device, foreground, that attaches to a home’s electric meter. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Avista has entered the internet service provider market.

The company’s nonutility subsidiary Avista Edge is rolling out a broadband pilot program to enable the city of Cheney to provide what representatives have boasted as high-speed, reliable internet in select city neighborhoods.

Avista Edge officially launched in August 2020 as a natural extension of Avista’s portfolio, said Mark Gustafson, Avista Edge’s president and CEO. As a nonutility subsidiary, Avista Edge is not funded by electric and gas customers.

At the moment, Avista Edge is focused on reaching customers served by public utilities – such as municipalities and public utility districts – in the Northwest. Gustafson said investor-owned utilities like the parent Avista have state-regulated franchise agreements that allow them to service electric and gas, but not other products such as broadband.

“Their customers are typically under- or not served in terms of broadband internet, and that’s the reason we’re in business,” Gustafson said of Avista Edge’s target base. “We want to help those communities.”

Gustafson said Avista research and development teams worked over the past few years to develop patents on the technology launched through Avista Edge.

Using a device that attaches to the electric meter of the home, the Avista Edge technology is designed to pick up a 5G network through fixed wireless signals installed at strategic sites to provide equal coverage, Gustafson said. Gustafson said Cheney would need 15-17 sites for Avista Edge services citywide.

The pilot between Avista Edge and Cheney includes only a single plan to start: $99 per month, prepaid, for upload/download speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) with no data caps. There’s no equipment cost or long-term contract, and pilot customers will have installation fees waived.

At this time, the pilot only supports single-family residences and small businesses on single-phase electric meters, with plans to support multifamily locations later this year or early next year.

“With the technology, and as we grow into the future of 5G in 2022, we’re going to be able to exceed those numbers,” Gustafson said of the internet speed.

According to BroadbandNow, the price for 100-Mbps cable internet through Davis Communications Inc. in several areas of Cheney is $94.95 per month. The price lists free installation and no data caps, though the modem cost is not included.

A 100-Mbps DSL connection through CenturyLink/Lumen Technologies, meanwhile, was listed at $50 per month with free installation, though not including the modem cost.

Gustafson said Avista Edge is unique for the corporation’s “leading-edge” technology.

“As costs of the 5G network come down, our supply chain and the current state of our economy are really pressing on our costs at the moment, which is sort of unprecedented,” Gustafson said. “We certainly hope to bring those costs down in the future.”

The Cheney pilot will be available to upward of 180 customers in the Avalon and Harvest Bluff neighborhoods. Eligible customers can expect invites to participate as early as the end of this month.

Gustafson said that while Avista Edge hopes to offer internet service citywide should the pilot go well, residents are not required to sign up.

“This service is just an alternative offering in really a competitive space,” he said. “There may not be high-speed options, but there’s options today that range from traditional satellite to cable and DSL over copper phone lines.”

The Cheney partnership is the first broadband pilot of its kind for Avista Edge. Gustafson said the corporation is also working on a partnership with Bonners Ferry.

Cheney City Administrator Mark Schuller said the two chief internet providers that service the city – CenturyLink/Lumen and Davis Communications – are not meeting the community’s needs.

That’s come to the forefront with the COVID-19 pandemic, said Schuller, citing virtual City Council meetings gone haywire with glitches, inconsistent levels of internet service depending on the neighborhood and complaints from residents who couldn’t send emails during high-traffic times of the day.

“If (students) were on campus, Eastern Washington University is served pretty well by fiber,” he said, “but as soon as they got into the community and tried to do things remotely, it just exasperated an already challenging situation here.”

When asked about Schuller’s comments, Carol Campbell, Davis Communications office manager, said the company is meeting industry standards set by the Federal Communications for high-speed internet. The minimum standards set by the FCC for broadband are download speeds of up to 25 Mbps and upload speeds of up to 3 Mbps.

Davis Communications services up to 1 gigabyte per second for downloads and uploads at 35 Mbps.

“We are directly wired to your home,” Campbell said. “We are also working on bringing 1.5 (Gbps) to Cheney and Medical Lake this year.”

Lumen Technologies spokesperson Kerry Zimmer said Lumen “recognizes how important it is for Cheney residents to have access to high-speed internet and the daily role it plays in their lives.”

“We continually evaluate our network for expanding or enhancing our broadband capabilities and applaud efforts such as public-private partnerships or state broadband grant funds,” Zimmer said.

The city of Cheney will provide the labor for installing the Avista Edge devices onto electric meters. The city will also field calls concerning any customer issues, though Avista Edge will be available to help with those as needed.

Otherwise, both Schuller and Gustafson said city taxpayers are not subsidizing Avista Edge’s services.

“The proof’s in the pudding,” Gustafson said, “We want to certainly walk the talk and actually execute and make sure. That’s why we’re piloting and not just launching the entire city at once. We want to make sure we actually get it right and get the feedback from the customers.”

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