Port Orchard finally signs on for fiber optics

After 15 months and countless drafts, the Port Orchard City Council at its last meeting finally signed an agreement to bring fiber-optic service to South Kitsap.

City officials were clearly relieved.

“In my wildest dreams, when we turned it over to committee over a year ago, you couldn’t have told me it would take this long,” said Mayor Jay Weatherill.

“You’re telling me,” said Councilman John Clauson.

Clauson, who serves as chair of the council’s ad-hoc telecommunications committee, was the one primarily tasked with striking an interlocal agreement between the city and the Kitsap County Public Utility District — the lead agency behind the fiber optics project.

In essence, the agreement is simply an arrangement by which the PUD can use the city’s rights-of-way to bury or string fiber-optic cable. The details, however, proved infinitely more complicated.

Clauson said the city wanted two things the PUD didn’t want to give — the right to impose a franchise fee on the PUD should it ever become legal to do so and the right to use the PUD’s utility ditches whenever they are opened. As a result, Port Orchard is the last jurisdiction to sign an agreement with the PUD.

“It just seemed (the other cities) agreed to what we presented them with,” said Lee Caldwell, South Kitsap’s PUD commissioner. “There weren’t any problems.”

The franchise fee issue is purely academic at the moment, Clauson said. Under state law, wholesalers cannot be charged franchise fees — a fee paid for the privilege of operating certain services, such as fiber optics access. Retailers have to pay the fees, Clauson said, and it’s probable at some point the state law will change and remove the wholesaler exemption.

“What we wanted was to keep the door open,” he said. “They did not like that.”

The trench issue seemed like a common-sense request, Clauson said. It struck the city that it would save both agencies time and money if they could simply use each other’s utility ditches — instead of digging two trenches, Clauson pointed out, they could dig one and both use it.

Nevertheless, he continued, the PUD wanted to put restrictions on how the city could use their ditches. For instance, Clauson said, the PUD didn’t want the city putting in other fiber that could potentially compete with the PUD’s fiber-optic monopoly.

The city, however, would not agree.

“If we’re going to pay to put (utility conduits) in the ground, we’re going to do whatever we want with it,” Clauson said.

The PUD’s attorney is still not thrilled with the agreement the city signed July 14, Clauson said. However, the city has been working directly with the PUD’s three commissioners and Clauson said he expected the interlocal agreement would be signed Aug. 12, when the PUD commissioners had their regular meeting.

The July meeting had to be canceled due to lack of quorum.

Caldwell agreed with Clauson’s assessment. He said the on-going hangups were largely due to legal problems and, in general, he believes the agreement is a good one.

“If something comes up that’s drastically wrong, it can be changed by an amendment,” Caldwell said. “You can’t see 10 years down the road.”

Nevertheless, if the deal doesn’t go through, Clauson said, that may be the end of the process. After 15 months, he explained, this may be as good as the agreement will ever get.

“Basically what we’re doing is putting it at the elected level,” Clauson said. “We’re done with it — we’ve negotiated all we’re going to negotiate.”

Theoretically, if the PUD commissioners approve the agreement, the city could have fiber optic access in as little as six months. Granted, Caldwell pointed out, the fiber would only reach to Group Health, just within city limits. If the city wanted fiber to come into downtown, it would cost approximately $90,000 — the PUD will only pay to get the cable as far as Tremont Street.

However, Caldwell believes simply having the option for a fiber connection could be all the incentive investors need to put up the needed funds to extend the cable into the heart of the city. He rattled off a list of potential big customers of fiber optics — schools, the fire district, real estate agencies and possibly even large grocery stores.

“As soon as fiber optics gets into the area, it will generate more interest among consumers than it does now,” Caldwell said. “That’s my opinion.”

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