Utility broadband plan on tight schedule, original conduit sale agreement falls through in "11th hour"

Renee Shadforth

Although the Truckee Donner Public Utility District continues to move ahead in its preparation to get into the broadband business, the project is taking longer than the district’s board of directors and staff had expected.

Over the duration of the planning process, the expected completion date for the project has extended from mid-2002 to the end of this year. Director of Telecommunication Services Alan Harry said some district customers could expect to have voice, video and data services by December 2003.

“I’ve sensed a little frustration on the board the last couple weeks,” said district General Manager Peter Holzmeister. “If our idea was to serve customers by Jan. 1, 2004, we’d better get moving.”

One bump in the road has been the sale and lease of two, two-inch fiber-optic conduits expected to bring more than $800,000 into the district’s telecommunications unit. The first deal with Touch America – one half of the Sierra Touch America partnership – “fell apart,” Harry said.

“In the 11th hour of the deal, we came to find out [Touch America] is no longer accepting phone calls and they no longer have a staff,” Harry said.

On the up side for the district, Sierra Pacific Communications, the other half of the Sierra Touch America partnership, agreed to enter negotiations with the district for the purchase of the conduit.

In the deal, the telecommunications unit will also purchase two strands of dark fiber, which may provide access to potential voice, video and data information from Sacramento.

In order to maintain a timeline for broadband service to be available to some customers by the end of the year, there are a series of tasks the district must complete in a very short period of time, Holzmeister said. Over the next couple months, he added, his attention will be diverted to broadband.

“In some cases [Harry and I] will ask the board to allow me to approve certain actions and report to me after the fact,” Holzmeister wrote in his memo to the board.

Although the board decided the delegation of its powers would be discussed at a later date, Director Pat Sutton said she was hesitant to hand over any decision-making authority to district staff.

“I’m very concerned with these kinds of requests,” she said.

Harry answered Sutton, saying he believed some quick decisions would be necessary, because the district would be involved in the competitive market.

“If we continue pushing this forward, I fear we’ll lose the confidence of the people in this district,” Harry said.

Major items on the district’s to-do list for broadband include arranging financing, securing Local Agency Formation Commission approval, building the system, building the broadband organization and launching the service.

To help pick up the pace on the broadband business, the board held a special meeting Monday night to discuss telecommunication issues. Harry presented the board with information comparing the district’s cost to build, own and operate the fiber-to-the-home infrastructure itself and the cost of operating the system through an already established provider. For the district to construct its own system, the capital outlay for “headend” only would cost $6 million, Harry estimated. For the district to outsource the headend, it would cost $500,000, Harry said.

The discussion led to several questions from the public regarding channel offerings, as they compare to USA Media and satellite service, and the quality of service the public can expect from the proposed Truckee Donner Public Utility District broadband.

“Will there be limiting programming available? What about AMC and the Food Network?” asked Truckee-resident Juanita Schneider.

Harry responded to most of the questions, saying the district’s broadband “wouldn’t be bound by [the provider’s] line up.”

The public utility district’s broadband project, already more than three years in the making, is estimated to cost more than $14 million dollars.

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