Report offers data on local internet access

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MontanaSky technicians arrive at a tower on Big Mountain in Whitefish. MontanaSky is expanding its wireless services in the Flathead Valley. (Photo courtesy of MontanaSky)

BroadbandNow, a data-aggregation service that informs consumers about internet options through government data and verified customer reviews, recently released a report on online access in the Flathead Valley.

Though there are missing elements in the report, as a whole the data paints a realistic picture of the Flathead Valley as being a technologically underserved area.

MontanaSky, for instance, is inaccurately omitted as a business provider, but Richard Dasen of MontanaSky business development said that “by and large, it [the report] seems fairly accurate.”

Montana is rated last among states for connectivity and Kalispell is the 47th most-connected city in Montana. Whitefish is 11th most-connected and Columbia Falls 28th. Kalispell ranked in the middle of United States cities in connected status, coming in at 12,276th among 26,868 cities nationwide.

According to the BroadbandNow report, the average download speed in Kalispell is 24.19 megabits per second (Mbps), 30.23 Mbps in Whitefish and 21.17 Mbps in Columbia Falls. The state average is 25.3 Mbps and the national average is 41.6.

Fiber links offer the fastest internet speeds, and according to BroadbandNow, only 6 percent of Flathead County users have fiber access. Though fiber can be prohibitively expensive unless there is a conduit already in place, it yields immensely faster service. MontanaSky, for example, has some business customers who are working on 500 Mbps with their fiber hookups, Dasen said.

MontanaSky is working to increase its fiber options.

“We’re expanding our fiber footprint quite a bit right now,” Dasen said. “We’re in the process of running fiber through the new rail park and we also have a couple larger fiber projects pending.

“We also do high-capacity point-to-point wireless so people can get fiber speeds off a wireless networks,” Dasen said. “We have several businesses located far away from fiber. With point to point we can get dedicated bandwidth to their building, anywhere from 100 to 500 megabytes.”

Kim Morisaki, director of marketing and business development for Montana West Economic Development, said a number of obstacles keep many Flathead Valley customers from having robust internet.

“The biggest challenge is that most of our infrastructure went in back in the ’90s, and back then cutting edge was DSL and not fiber,” she said. “DSL has its limitations over distance and doesn’t meet the modern-day needs of technology for today.”

She said local technology infrastructure is not keeping up with the times as new homes crop up at a rapid pace, even though homeowners usually view fast internet as a necessity.

“Internet service is the electricity of the 21st century,” Morisaki said. “People expect that in their houses all they have to do is plug in.”

Because of the relative lack of fiber, upload speeds (which are not addressed in the BroadbandNow report) are not keeping up with national trends. Morisaki said this affects people who work from home and might need to upload documents or conduct a video conference with co-workers in another city.

Montana West Economic Development made it a priority in 2018 to study solutions for bridging the technology gap in the Flathead Valley area. They talked to providers, users and business people throughout the country in a search for solutions. Cities have been able to improve internet speeds through extensive fiber installations, but Morisaki said that’s not a practical approach for Flathead County.

“One thing I’ve discovered, which I wasn’t expecting to find out, was that some counties in the state of Montana served by telephone co-ops have amazing internet,” she said. “In Lincoln County, every resident has fiber to their homes because the co-ops are owned by the local residents and are investing in the infrastructure.”

Despite some insufficiencies, the BroadbandNow report does point out that the Flathead Valley is a fairly competitive market for internet consumers, with local businesses MontanaSky and Bullitt Communications, and national brands CenturyLink and Spectrum offering business and residential internet services.

Spectrum also recently announced a few new features. In September 2018, Charter Communications launched Spectrum Mobile for new and existing internet subscribers in Montana. Spectrum also introduced Spectrum Internet Gig for residential customers and Spectrum Business Internet Gig for small- and medium-sized business clients.

HughesNet is listed as the main satellite internet provider for the area.

MontanaSky, the longest-serving local internet provider in Northwest Montana, has aimed to keep up with internet needs of rural areas through wireless services for those with a line-of-sight radio path from their building to a tower. This doesn’t work for everyone, though.

“Some customers are on legacy DSL, way out of town and up in the trees in the middle of nowhere. They are the most underserved people in the valley,” Dasen said.

Dasen said rural customers often wonder why they can’t get faster internet.

“They’re running on telephone lines put in to serve three houses on a party line. Now there are 100 houses trying to stream Netflix on a line that was installed in the 1960s.”

Two new MontanaSky towers will fill some gaps in the company’s coverage. Customers in the Kila area will soon be in range of a newly installed tower, expected to be operational within the next few months. MontanaSky also just laid the foundation for a tower in the Creston area that is expected to be functioning sometime this spring, Dasen said.

Bullitt Communications of Kalispell provides only wireless service. As the smallest internet provider in the area, it has come up with a creative approach for speed.

“We offer a meter service, like a cellphone,” Bullitt owner Scott Richardson said. “If someone uses a lot of video, they pay more than someone who just checks email and Facebook to see how the grandkids are doing. This keeps people who are doing a lot of torrenting and major downloads off our networks, which keeps our network fast.”

Bullitt towers currently reach the western and middle sections of the valley and the company hopes to eventually serve the corridor from Columbia Falls to Bigfork. Richardson said Bullitt’s focus right now is on creating geographic redundancy to ensure that outages are as short as possible.

“It’s not like the old days when internet was a cool new thing,” he said. “It’s a requirement that people just can’t be without.”

To access the full BroadbandNow report, visit BroadbandNow.com

Business reporter Heidi Gaiser may be reached at 758-4438 or hgaiser@dailyinterlake.com.

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