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News and comments on community broadband networks, the communities deploying them and the technologies that support them. Published by Denise Frey and Al Bonnyman.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2003


Washington: More witch hunting at Grant County PUD

The Columbia Basin Herald's Erik Olson, always eager to find controversy at Grant County Public Utility District, is reporting on alleged improprieties in fiber cable procurement for the PUD's FTTH (fiber to the home) project back in 2001. The article is not well-written so the details are confusing, but essentially the low bidder failed to meet all the bid requirements and another bidder changed his price. The PUD made some adjustments without going back out to bid.

Only at the end of his article does Olson mention, in passing, two key facts. First, a subsequent court ruling affirmed the PUD's purchase. Second, the state law governing PUD telecommunications businesses was sufficiently vague that similar technical violations had occurred at three other PUDs (we've previously noted that the law was crafted in part by telco lobbyists trying to hinder public power utilities' fiber deployments).

Olson also doesn't mention a third issue -- that in 2000 and much of 2001, fiber cable was hard to come by and manufacturing lead times were a year or more. Some cable manufacturers were canceling distributors' orders and failing to honor quotes during the 'fiber squeeze'; the problems Grant County PUD encountered were happening elsewhere. Fiber cable buyers had to scrounge to get any cable at all in a timely fashion.

Grant County Public Utility District rolled out one of the first FTTH (fiber to the home) systems in the U.S. over the objections of some customers that did not want to see the PUD make that sort of investment. The Commissioners proceeded anyway and the project has been successful by many accounts; one commissioner compared the broadband deployment to the similar rural electrification program of 50 years ago when he referred to the project as 'rural fibrification'.

Critics, both local and hired from outside, have remained implacably opposed to the project since then and have criticized the PUD's managers on many grounds. They've accused the PUD of everything from paying too much to outside consultants (the fees we saw looked pretty reasonable) to illegal price fixing.

This all culminated in the PUD hiring an independent outside investigator from Seattle to research all of the alleged misdeeds. As I've previously noted, the report found some technical violations of state law but specifically stated: "any violations of the law were made with the best interests of the PUD in mind and not [for] personal gain".


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