Chelan PUD Eyes Options For Costly Completion Of Countywide Fiber Build

Chelan County PUD logo

Officials in Chelan County, Washington say they are making meaningful progress on its decades-old plan to deliver affordable broadband to all 79,000 county residents. After securing financing for its latest planned fiber expansion, the Chelan County Public Utility District (PUD) says it’s exploring options to help finish the job of equitable, affordable, full-county deployment.

Chelan County PUD was formed in 1936 by local voters frustrated by costly, spotty access to electricity. Like so many utilities, cooperatives, and communities, those rural electrification efforts have helped inform the quest for ubiquitous, affordable broadband access almost a century later.

In 2001, the Chelan PUD began building a county-wide wholesale fiber network at a time when PUDs in the state were restricted from offering retail telecommunications services. (Those state statutes were rolled back by state lawmakers in May 2021). The network currently covers roughly 81% of the county, reaching about 39,000 subscribers; 21,000 of which get broadband service through one of the county’s five local ISP partners.

Chelan County map

An ongoing network expansion plan aims to extend the reach of the county’s fiber network to roughly 42,000 homes and businesses. Those efforts are currently being funded by some of the $14.9 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds received by the county, as well as the  Chelan PUD's Public Power Benefit Program, financed by surplus wholesale power sales.

At an early November meeting, PUD leaders noted that the wholesale network is currently not financially self-sustaining, and the county is exploring its options in terms of bringing fiber to the remaining unserved portions of the largely rugged and rural high desert county. 

Chelan County Courthouse

“Expanding broadband infrastructure has limits, both geographical and financial,” Chelan PUD General Manager Kirk Hudson said at a recent commission meeting. “We’ve reached a crossroads where we need to clearly define when the expansion work will be considered complete, and how we address rural access, growth and development going forward.”

Unsurprisingly, the county’s quest to drive fiber into the most remote corners of rural Chelan county comes with a steep price tag. Estimates currently indicate that the per location cost to deploy fiber to the remaining 15% of the county will be anywhere between $15,000 and $25,000 per building.

"The remaining half of our distribution system is going to be needed to reach that final 15 percent," Chelan PUD Senior Project Manager Toby Tarzwell recently told a local radio station. "So, that really does highlight the challenge of how remote these areas are, how low density these areas are, and how much make-ready work was involved to get there."

Chelan PUD says the county is currently working on shoring up broadband maps for the remaining underserved areas, and contemplating a potential hybrid fiber and wireless delivery solution to finish a job begun decades earlier.

But it remains an open question for the county as to how the remainder of the network is to be financed.

"You can do the math and depending on how many premises we decide to expand to, the overall project could be in the $100 million to $150 million range," Tarzwell said.

Inline image of Chelan County Courthouse courtesy of Flickr user cmh2315fl, Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic