- Associated Press - Thursday, April 14, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Rural wireless and broadband providers urged Montana lawmakers Thursday to address the needs of far-flung communities in obtaining quality phone service and faster internet service.

Industry representatives visited the state Capitol to tell members of the Economic Affairs Interim Committee about the challenges faced by rural communications companies in providing service to some of the most sparsely populated areas of the state.

The high price of erecting new cell towers and laying miles of fiber optic lines is cost prohibitive, said Mike Kilgore, the CEO of Nemont, which serves about 14,000 wireless telephone and broadband customers across 15,000 square miles in northeast Montana. The area doesn’t have the customer base to absorb the cost of expanding infrastructure, he said.

“We need a discussion about the challenges these companies face,” said Geoff Feiss of the Montana Telecommunications Association, which represents nine rural communications carriers serving about a 100,000 homes across rural Montana. Among those challenges is having enough funding for upgrading phone and broadband networks.

The Public Service Commission is looking into establishing a state universal service fund to build broadband services across rural Montana, said Eric Sell, the commission’s spokesman.

The fund could be used to augment a similar federal program, which provides about $95 million to communications providers to help subsidize their costs to expand into rural areas.

Last year, the Legislature defeated a $15 million financing plan to expand internet, phone and cable services in some of the state’s most isolated reaches.

In some parts of Montana, the only way to connect to the internet is through antiquated dial-up modems, said Michael Candelaria, the general manager of Mid-Rivers Communications in Circle.

Candelaria said it could cost about $300 million to install 20,000 miles of fiber optics to fully wire the company’s service area - money that he says his company does not have.

Kilgore and Candelaria appeared before the legislative committee to speak specifically about cellular service in the state’s rural areas, but that discussion, they said, is part of a broader one about connecting the state’s most isolated residents to communications services.

Wireless and broadband services have become ubiquitous features of American life, but many parts of rural America still struggle to obtain quality phone and internet service.

Schools and businesses have become reliant on such services, and there has been a national push to improve service into rural areas.

Montana has among the slowest broadband access speeds in the country, much of it blamed on limited communications infrastructure.

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