By Michael Howell
Montana legislators across the state have begun to focus on internet accessibility as a key aspect in the future development and growth of the state’s economy. The Bitterroot delegation tasked Senator Fred Thomas and Representative Ed Greef to assess the situation in the Bitterroot Valley. As part of that effort those two started working with Julie Foster, Director of the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority, to put a picture together of what the needs and possibilities are for expanding internet access in the area.
Last Wednesday, Thomas hosted a face to face talk over the internet between U.S. Representative Steve Daines in Washington D.C. and a group in his office in Stevensville that included Foster and wireless internet service providers Christian Palecek, a network engineer from Hamilton based Cybernet1, Terry Weisenburger, owner of Stevensville based Rocky Mountain Internet, and Jason Pond, owner of West Yellowstone’s Grizzly Internet, who also serves on the statewide Wireless Internet Service Providers Association.
Thomas told Daines that while federal dollars were flowing into large national companies to aid in the installation of fiber optic lines, it is actually the small locally owned wireless internet service providers who hold the key to providing internet in the Bitterroot Valley.
Right now two major fiber optic lines, one owned by Charter and the other by CenturyLink, run down the center of the valley as far south as Hamilton. Charter recently extended a branch of its line into Stevensville. But, according to Thomas, people living outside that narrow corridor in the center of the valley are unable to connect. It is the wireless service providers that reach out into the countryside.
Thomas told Daines that the Bitterroot is “a long skinny valley that is not really conducive to fiber, it is conducive to microwave technology.”
The local internet providers expressed frustration at the fact that the federal government was subsidizing large companies like Charter and CenturyLink to expand their businesses but no attention was being paid to the wireless providers and the obstacles they face in trying to expand their services.
“Charter and CenturyLink are the same as Walmart to other small businesses,” said Palecek.
One thing going for the small wireless companies, though, is the technological improvements in wireless that allow for increased speed of data delivery in wireless systems. Both local providers said their businesses were growing rapidly because of this. Cybernet1 currently serves about 2,500 customers from Huson to Darby. Rocky Mountain Internet serves about 1,700 customers in the Stevensville area.
Palecek said that internet usage is increasing dramatically right now. Industry predictions are that the usage will grow 300% to 400% in the next two years due in part to the growing use of internet-based television. According to Weisenburger, a lot of the increased use is coming from Netflix and entertainment oriented use rather than from expanding business services.
The problems that these wireless servers are encountering have more to do with federal regulations over the radio frequencies used than anything else.
Weisenburger, for instance, has connected to the fiber optic line that was recently installed in Stevensville, which boosts his capacity to serve more than 5,000 customers. But without additional frequencies, he said, he may have to cap out his business at 2,000.
The high cost of licenses for additional frequencies is a big limiting factor on what a small company can do. Another limiting factor is access to affordable loans to fund such expansions. None of the providers at the meeting have used any federal loans for their businesses.
Foster said that if the small wireless internet service providers in Montana could get together and form a kind of utility cooperative, she would be glad to work with them to help make some low interest loans a possibility.
Daines said that he recognized the importance of wireless providers in rural Montana and the role they will play in building Montana’s economy. He said more and more people are wanting to “live where they play” and are able to do so if they can get good speed internet.
“We have to make sure that small internet providers can continue to deliver,” he said.