Lake Wenatchee's south shore worries of life without PUD fiber

Chelan County PUD commissioner

LAKE WENATCHEE — Mother Nature has obliterated a fiber-optic cable that supplied enviably fast Internet, telephone and cable TV service to this forest lake’s south shore, leaving homeowners with no comparable alternatives.

Now most are reeling from the news that the Chelan County PUD may not rebuild the line but replace it with a far slower and less versatile — but cheaper — wireless network.

“A lot of people up here think that we’ve been thrown under the bus,” says longtime resident George Wilson, one of many south-shore residents who lobbied for years to get the PUD to put the fiber in. “I’ve never, ever seen a utility just walk away from an established, essential service. Wireless is a huge step backward.”

The PUD paid about $300,000 to install the fiber line in August 2008 as part of a $120 million county-wide network that reaches about 70 percent of all county residents, but has never generated enough revenue to pay its own bills or cover its build-out costs.

A series of ice and snow storms hit the heavily forested region in mid December, sending hundreds of snow-laden trees falling into power and fiber lines.

PUD officials say fiber around the lake’s north shore is fixable, but the south-shore line is destroyed.

The damaged south-shore fiber line stretches about 5.5 miles northwest of Lake Wenatchee State Park. It will cost an estimated $500,000 to $750,000, to fix, depending on the time of year they do the work. This compares to $175,000 to $225,000 for wireless, Mike Coleman, the PUD’s managing director of fiber and telecommunications, has said.

Officials from LocalTel Communications, the company that sells Internet, phone and TV services over Chelan County PUD fiber, say 157 homes on the lake’s south shore are equipped to receive fiber services. Of those about 80 actually take the service, bringing the company’s “take rate” up to more than 50 percent.

This take rate is comparable to far more densely populated areas the company serves elsewhere in Chelan County.

But only about seven homes are occupied year-round on the lake’s south shore, PUD officials say. The rest are second homes, occupied part of the week or year.

The line also supplied Camp Zanika, a recreation area sponsored by Camp Fire USA. The camp hosted more than 1,200 visitors last year, including Camp Fire, youth groups and work groups.

South shore residents, full and part time, say they’ve built their lives around fiber in the four years it’s been available.

They’ve upgraded their homes, set up offices to operate businesses and invested in fiber-dependent security systems.

Wireless isn’t fast enough to support phone service, considered vital by many for its access to 911 emergency dispatch. Nor will it support cable TV.

Some homeowners, like Dr. Stu Freed, medical director at Wenatchee Valley Medical Center, said wireless may be OK for him at his lake house.

Most others say fiber would hard for them to do without.

“We changed the whole way we do registration based on the fiber,” Theresa Samuelsen, Camp Fire director said Tuesday. “We tried wireless, but it wouldn’t work because of all of our trees.”

“I can understand where the PUD is coming from,” said Don Bottoms, another of the lake’s full-time residents. “They spent a lot of money to put it in, and it disappeared on us overnight, practically. It would be one thing if the system had never existed and we hadn’t done anything with our properties based on having fiber capability.”

He added, “You go back to why PUDs are established nationwide and it’s to serve the underserved areas.”

Bob Hooson runs an employment recruiting businesses from May to October from his Lake Wenatchee home. He spends winters working in California.

“I’m on the Internet all day,” he said. “Our business requires pulling a lot of resumes down off the Internet and communicating with a lot of people at once. I’d be dead in the water without it. We have built our business based on the fact that we have fiber technology available to us. Wireless is not fast enough.”

“I just hope they make it right,” says Dr. Gary Bell, a Seattle dentist with strong Wenatchee ties who does contract forensic work over the Internet from his lake home. “When fiber came in... we spent $500,000 to upgrade our home. “I’ve never heard of the PUD coming in, giving service and then taking it away. It totally changes our life here. I think we deserve the services as much as anyone. We’re ratepayers, too.”

The PUD netted a $75 million budget surplus last year, the largest in many years. But utility executives say they’re committed to a new policy based on most customers’ wishes that fiber and all other PUD services pay their own way with their own revenues. That policy includes strict cost caps for fiber.

Even though lake long timers qualify the season’s snow storm as the worst they’ve ever seen, PUD officials fear they could lose the line again in a few years, if they pay to replace it.

PUD Commission President Carnan Bergren said Tuesday that he still hasn’t made up his mind about what’s right for the south shore — and wouldn’t until PUD staffers further study fiber costs, make a recommendation to the board and further consult the public. More public discussion is expected in the next couple of weeks.

“Pulling from our reserves is not in our business model,” Bergren said. “Each service has to pay for itself. “Do we all pay it through our fiber bills? Do we specifically charge a certain area? The fiber system should have to pay for that repair one way or another.”

Christine Pratt: 665-1173