Providing for the digital age

By: 
Charlie Denison
Reporter

Local Mid-Rivers technician Brad Petersen stands by a company vehicle earlier this year before going into the field to help a customer receive Internet and cable service.

Photo courtesy of Nicole Senner

Keeping up with internet speed, streaming capacities and all the wide varieties of options people now have when it comes to technology can be a challenge for rural communication providers, but Mid-Rivers and Triangle Communications are up for it, taking on the challenge and adapting along the way.

“It’s a good challenge, as technology today is a big animal,” said Michael Candelaria, Mid-Rivers Communications Chief Executive Officer. “It takes a lot of skilled people to put in the time and energy, and fortunately, we have 175 hard-working employees that help us provide the best services.”

Recently, the Federal Communications Commission approved 4G LTE service to areas in Montana and Wyoming, thanks partly to efforts made by U.S. Senator Steve Daines (R-Mont.), but constant battles continue to take place to ensure rural Montanans receive the best quality coverage for their phones, computers and other communication-related mediums.

A cooperative business, Mid-Rivers provides internet, phone and television services throughout eastern Montana: Circle, Baker, Glendive, Miles City, Sidney, Roundup and Lewistown.

“Our members have an ownership in the business,” he said. “They own equity and capital. Each year any profits are returned in the form of capital credits. At least $1 million in capital credits is returned each year.”

Customer needs and wants are changing at a fast pace, as some newer, younger clients don’t use cable at all.

“We have cord-cutters and even ‘cord-nevers,’” Candelaria said. “A number of younger clients don’t rely on cable at all for video content. This is getting more common. Industry-wide, we’ve seen a three percent decline in cable users, as a result.”

Nevertheless, in the rural areas, there are still plenty who rely on cable television, as well as Internet. Midrivers recently changed its approach to how it provides Internet, switching to Wide Open Internet, what Candelaria calls a “revolutionary style of Internet that brings the newest technology, enhanced high speed service and no more data caps.”

“Users are charged for what they use,” Candelaria said. “If you just want internet for Facebook and email, you don’t pay much, but if you want to use streaming services such as Hulu or Netflix, you pay a little extra for the privilege. It’s a very fair way to deliver the internet and make it affordable for everyone.”

But no matter how it’s done, providing Internet for rural Montana – and rural America, for that matter, is not easy, nor is it cheap. Craig Gates, Chief Executive Officer for Triangle Communications, said covering 24,000 square miles of area to provide service for roughly 50,000 people has a lot of expense involved. Think about it: that’s a bigger area than some states, and, in urban areas, you can cover that same amount of people within a few city blocks.”

Covering this wide of an area certainly presents some technological issues. As higher internet speeds are becoming more of a requirement, changes are being made to how the coverage is accomplished, as copper lines are being changed to fiber optic lines. For both Triangle and Mid-Rivers, this is a costly change, but it’s an important one.

If they didn’t offer higher speeds of internet, there are people in rural areas such as Winifred, Denton and Hilger (where Triangle offers services), who wouldn’t have the service at all, Gates said.

“This is why we’re building fiber,” Gates said. “We have about 49 percent of our subscriber base covered, and we will continue to build, as this allows for both economic growth and higher speeds.”

Also a co-op, Triangle offers Internet, landline and some cellular telephone services in part of Montana, Wyoming and southern Canada. They were hoping to expand their reach in the area – especially with cell phone coverage – but Gates said this is hardly possible without funding from the FCC.

“The FCC has pretty much stopped universal service funding,” Gates said. “Without them helping pay to set up rural areas with towers, I can’t see it happening. Those towers are $350,000 to $550,000 or more. That’s why you’re not seeing Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile building more towers, either. They’re expensive.”

In Gates’ opinion, the last two FCC chairmen have been far more invested in urban areas than rural areas. He hopes that changes with the new administration, but he is not optimistic.

However, when it comes to the internet, Gates said he understands and acknowledges the future is based on availability, and he’s glad to be in a position where he can make the Internet available for those who need it.

“We’re here to make sure rural people don’t get left behind,” Gates said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that’s the case. We are in a time of unprecedented technological change, and we are embracing it. We will continue to embrace it and continue to build the best network possible for our members.”

Mid-Rivers, which Gates does not consider competition but instead a “neighbor and partner,” has a similar goal: to provide the best service possible for rural America.

“The internet is now considered to be an essential service,” Candelaria said. “It’s part of our lifeline, and, to use the analogy of when electricity came along, we’re not even past the light bulb yet. The possibilities continue to be endless. I can’t even imagine what’s to come, but I can say we are well situated to evolve with the coming internet. I’m very optimistic about the future.”

 

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