Workshop Held to Discuss Broadband

Residents, business owners and service providers address challenges and importance of Internet access in Flathead Valley

By Madeleine Lamon

More than 50 people gathered in an auditorium last week to discuss Internet service in the Flathead Valley.

Co-hosted by Montana West Economic Development and Northwest Montana Association of Realtors MLS, the Community Broadband Initiative Workshop at Flathead Valley Community College lasted more than six hours on June 13.

Community members, county officials and broadband providers shared their hopes and concerns about the future of broadband in the region. Throughout the day, attendees, in both large and small groups settings, highlighted longstanding issues facing consumers, specifically those for rural residents.

“It’s tough to get into a rural market and it’s also expensive, but it’s needed,” Richard Dasen Jr., a representative with Montana Sky, said. “Fiber, as a lot of people have mentioned, costs $30,000 a mile to run and Montana has a lot of miles.”

Others in attendance complained that even in areas with established connections, pricing can be inconsistent and some customer service representatives can provide incorrect, or even dishonest, information concerning service.

The workshop opened with presentations concerning the basics of broadband and the current state of broadband in the state and Flathead region.

Attendees then listened as local stakeholders, such as Kim Crowley, director of ImagineIF Libraries, and Richard Lawrence, the information technology director at Kalispell Public Schools, explained the importance of broadband to their respective fields.

Lawrence described how technology has become “a cornerstone of education” in the district and how there is a disparity in connectivity between Kalispell and neighboring districts.

“We have 12 partner districts,” he said. “The further away that you get from Kalispell, the more the struggles are for adequate broadband for those schools, and affordable broadband.”

Representatives of regional broadband providers, including Teresa Holman with CenturyLink, Tyler Ament with Velocity Communications and Mary Roehr with Charter Spectrum, gave short presentations about their services and answered questions about service in the area.

Many attendees asked questions about a recent outage, which affected Charter customers earlier in the week, bringing to light larger issues with broadband service in the area.

Brian Chernish, the 911 technology program manager for Flathead 911 Emergency Communications Center, attributed the outage largely to a lack of redundancy — the inclusion of backup lines that can help to prevent service losses.

“As witnessed by the outage we had this weekend, we’re trying to run a 911 center, and a single tree on a single piece of fiber causes a 12-hour outage that affects all of our radios for all your law enforcement, fire, all of your first responders,” he said.

Attendees consistently emphasized the importance of Internet access in the modern day.

Connie Behe, the assistant director at ImagineIF Libraries, described the difficulty and importance of addressing the “digital divide” — the disparity in who has access to the Internet as well as the disparity in knowledge of how to use digital resources.

“You need [Internet] to access all of these things that are key to your success,” Behe said.