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The city of Ellensburg will research expanding its under-construction fiber optic network to possibly include Internet service for commercial businesses or residences.

The Ellensburg City Council voted unanimously Monday night to direct city staff to offer a request for qualifications from contractors to write a long-term strategic plan for the city’s telecommunications utility.

The city has operated a fiber optic cable network that supports information services for multiple public institutions in Ellensburg, from the police department to Central Washington University.

Charter Communications built the network, which the city managed. When Charter asked to change the deal to require the city to pay for use of the lines, city staff determined the city would save money in the long run if it built its own, and awarded a $961,000 bid for construction to Cannon Construction last December. The project was slated for completion late this summer.

Charter’s deal asked for a $10,000 per month lease.

Right now, the city ordinance that established the utility only provides for servicing public entities, as the Charter-owned network did before.

“Typically, for this type of an activity, (a strategic plan) would include a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis for the telecom utility,” city Energy Services Director Larry Dunbar said. “We would look at different business cases for different service opportunities like providing Internet access to perhaps commercial businesses, perhaps Internet access to the general public. A variety of other service opportunities are possible.”

Dunbar said the plan also would also look at how the service would be delivered, and if the city would provide it.

“These are some pros and cons that need to be fleshed out very carefully as this unfolds,” he said.

The plan’s cost is not yet in the city’s budget, but Dunbar said the cost would be felt in the city’s utility and general fund budget, and would probably cost $10,000 to $15,000 out of the general fund and a similar amount from the utility budget.

Council member Bruce Tabb asked if the city would lose more money, should it decide to expand the network, if it didn’t do so while the network was still under construction.

Dunbar said money was set aside in the contract to build the network in a way that was “future-ready,” and able to accommodate alterations or expansions at less cost.

City staff consulted with the city of Tacoma, which operates its own cable utility, for advice, Dunbar said.

“This is the third network design and construction I’ve been involved in,” he said. “I think we’re doing a pretty decent job at that. Hopefully we’ve foreseen the possibilities.”

Council member Nancy Lillquist, citing discussions at the city Utility Advisory Committee, said a strategic plan would be finished before the end of the contract to build the network, leaving it open to amendments.

David Bowen of the Ellensburg Business Development Authority said in a June letter the organization applauded the city’s move to build its own network.

The EBDA also asked the city to consider going further, including investigating the sale of fiber optic services to the private sector and retail Internet service providers.

Also, the EBDA recommended the city build its network in a way that could bolster economic development, at least by extending the network to city-owned properties near Bowers Field or the business incubator, and to research how it could put the city in competition with Charter Communications.

A report from the city’s staff said expanding the network to the city’s building near the airport or the business incubator would cost $65,000.

Council member Tony Aronica called the proposal exciting. He said he remembered how his Internet service was affected when discussions between his provider, which offered Internet from a third party as a bundler, and Charter Communications, broke down.

“It impacts Ellensburg at the business level but also at the consumer level, because there’s not really any other options,” he said. “I think it’s responsible of us to do this.”

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