Remote work, learning frustrates local broadband users

By 
Katherine Sears
Reporter
Tuesday, March 9, 2021
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Ethernet cables run from a server at Lewistown Online. Business owner John Payne said the internet service provider is working to upgrade equipment in order to provide broadband service to more people.
Photo by Matthew Strissel

In this year of virtual school, virtual meetings and virtual family gatherings, internet connectivity became more important than ever for students, families and employees working from home. It also aggravated already existing issues for broadband users in Central Montana.
“The pandemic made this ever more clear to us,” said Geoff Feiss, general manager at Montana Telecommunications Association, of the state’s broadband issues.  
In 2020, Montana ranked second to last for high-speed broadband internet access, falling just ahead of Alaska.
While Feiss said these rankings by BroadbandNow are based on several factors that can sometimes be inaccurate, area residents’ frustrations echo the rankings.
“With pay per gig [gigabyte] and kids doing online school, it’s been a whole new world of pain at the end of a bill cycle,” said Kelsey Wright, who lives in Lewistown.
She said her daughter does schoolwork completely online, and her internet bill has more than doubled due to the pandemic.
“We got hit harder with our internet increase, partially from school, partially from being home more often and using more internet during the pandemic,” said Wright.

For Wright and other area residents, switching providers isn’t often an option as choices can be slim due to coverage areas.
Mid-Rivers Communications covers a large portion east of Lewistown into eastern Montana with wireless and fiber optic services, while Triangle Communications provides internet services west, north and south of Hobson, but not to Lewistown.
Another provider is Lewistown Online, which casts wireless internet to areas within 30 miles of the Moccasin and Judith Mountains.
“That’s as far as I want to go to keep the speed and quality [for current customers],” said John Payne of Lewistown Online.
Right now, Payne said the bandwidth he has is maxed out and he’s working to upgrade his equipment to be able to push more data.
“We’re at a point of saturation right now,” said Payne. “We’re working to increase overall bandwidth to provide more service to more people.”
Those looking for internet service in their homes are left with few options. For some, who live where fiber optic cable reaches their residence or a company can provide a wireless connection, better access may be a matter of an upgrade. Others must resort to cell phone providers, such as Verizon, or satellite internet, such as HughesNet, CenturyLink or Starlink. These options can be expensive and the quality of service can be subject to weather conditions and other factors.
“We had to settle for Verizon, because we are too close to Lewistown for Triangle, but too far for Mid-Rivers,” said Shannon Ruckman, who lives near Glengarry. “It was expensive no matter which way we went.”   
The price of doing business is high, and Feiss points out internet service providers already utilize three avenues to cover the cost of operating.
“Service providers get revenues three ways – from the rate payer, federal support and loans,” said Feiss. “The rate payer is only paying a third of what it actually costs.”

A lot of dirt
While local internet providers are working to expand service, the task takes time and money. Feiss estimates it costs $30,000 per mile to lay fiber cable in the ground, and Montana isn’t a small place.
“The highest proportions of broadband penetration are in the highest densities of population,” said Feiss. “In Montana there’s not a lot of people and there’s a lot of dirt, so it’s going to take time to build the infrastructure.”
Mid-Rivers Communications plans to put a record $20 million into projects to expand fiber infrastructure in 2021.
“Our focus is providing a quality internet experience and bringing broadband internet to the thousands of households in eastern and Central Montana who still need it,” said Erin Lutts, chief communication officer at Mid-Rivers Communications.
“As the pandemic has proven, a quality internet connection is an essential utility that has great value no matter where you live, and extending those quality connections into rural areas is more important than ever,” Lutts added.
The budget includes building out 135 miles of fiber to 400 locations near Roundup and 150 miles of fiber to over 50 subscribers near Ryegate. Lutts said the cooperative will also be working on multiple projects to the east that will involve another 620 miles of rural fiber installation. Their goal is to add at least 4,000 new locations over the next several years, utilizing $13 million in federal funding each year through 2028.
“We are tasked with specific build-out requirements to a set number of locations in very specific areas with these support dollars, and we also must plan for the Cooperative’s continued sustainability after 2028,” said Lutts.
The Cooperative is still accepting new customers at any location where they have existing facilities capable of providing internet, and Lutts said they will extend facilities for new service requests where it is reasonable to do so, based on distance and cost.

The future of broadband
The crawl to widespread high-speed internet may be slow, but there are several solutions in the works.
“We’re working on solutions here in Montana and the legislature in D.C. is working on solutions,” said Feiss.
“We need broadband to be available to anyone so we need to fix the affordability issue.”
The Federal Communications Commission recently awarded $126 million to six firms to bring high-speed internet to rural areas, mostly in the western part of the state, with smaller targets near Billings, Havre, Miles City, Glendive and Lewistown.
Over half of the funds were awarded to an increasingly popular internet option for locals – Starlink, part of billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX program. The low-Earth orbiting satellites are a relatively new technology that have yet to prove themselves, but the company claims it can deliver the high-speed internet the FCC has commissioned with the money – 100 megabits per second (mbs) for download and 20 mbs for uploading.
“There’s a lot they say they can do that we doubt,” said Feiss. “That [speed] has yet to be demonstrated in a commercial setting.”
Feiss said the speed can be delivered by some media, but not all, and time will tell if Starlink can accomplish it. He believes fiber optic will continue to be the dominant method for broadband.
“I think fiber is the gold standard for delivering speeds,” said Feiss. “It’s durable, flexible and it’s an expandable method.”
There are also several bills before Montana Legislature concerning broadband coverage.
House Bill 422 would repeal a section of law that prohibits Montana cities from owning or partnering with broadband utilities, while Senate Bill 51 would exempt newly-installed coaxial and fiber optic cable from property taxation for five years after installation. The bill would also require broadband companies to reinvest their savings into laying additional cable in Montana.
Senate Bill 297 proposes establishing a grant program to bring high-speed internet to underserved areas.
“That might help attract private investment where broadband is deficient,” said Feiss.
House Bill 494 would combine resources and require the Montana Department of Transportation to notify broadband companies when constructing new highways so fiber optic could be installed in the process. Proponents say this could defray the large expense of digging in fiber installation, which can make up nearly 90% of the cost to lay new cable.
“Broadband is really expensive and it requires an all-hands-on-deck approach,” said Feiss.

Tips to save on the Internet bill

-Turn off video streaming when not in use
-Turn off “auto play” features
-Understand video streaming resolution and how to reduce it
-Turn off or reconfigure settings on devices that “push” data when not in use, such as the Amazon Alexa and Google Home
-Install antivirus programs and keep them up to date

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