For a lot of people, internet access is more of a need.
Vision Net is a Montana-based company that connects small internet providers with the rest of the globe.
“We’re behind the scenes,” said Gary Evans, the Operations Manager at Vision Net. “Most of them in Montana go through us to get out to the world.”
Vision Net is a network operations center, or middle mile carrier.
“We will route their traffic up through here, across their network, where it needs to go,” Evans said.
It all takes place in a data centre on top of the hill outside of town.
“It used to be just a fun thing to have at home, and now it’s a critical service,” Evans said. “911 is riding over our network for a good portion of the state. We are responsible for carrying the 911 traffic. This is one of the many things we do behind-the scenes. So, if our network goes down, a lot of people couldn’t call 911.”
Montana is currently one of the worst states for internet connectivity.
“There’s a lot of dirt between light bulbs in Montana. We’re just one little town with long streets,” said Geoff Feiss, the General Manager of the Montana Telecommunications Association. “By some standards, we are 51st in the nation in broadband accessibility to consumers in the state. How does one get to 51? You add D.C. in there.”
The association represents locally owned service providers in the state.
“We’re a big state, not a lot of consumers. It’s very hard to serve. It’s just an expensive place to serve,” Feiss said. “New Jersey, or Delaware, or Connecticut, these are states that can fit in a couple counties in Montana with millions of consumers, and the cost of providing services, much lower.”
The infrastructure bill being considered by the federal government could help this town and other rural communities.
“It would provide $42.5 billion for broadband infrastructure investment,” Feiss said.
It’s not just the lack of access. In some areas, it’s more the cost or quality.
“Anybody that’s five miles outside Cascade, our options are extremely limited,” said Nichole Pieper, the junior high and high school principal at Cascade Public Schools.
It serves 300 students in kindergarten through 12th grades. Pieper states that it is possible to connect to the internet at the school from outside of town.
“We’re only seven miles out of town and we struggle with finding options. I probably contacted five-plus providers, and every single one of them told me, ‘Sorry, we don’t have internet available to your address at this time,’” she explained.
She currently has internet that’s slow and doesn’t work well during peak hours. Christopher Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance stated that this is a common problem for rural residents.
“There’s a lot of places that look, in the national database, like they have service but that network just doesn’t work very often,” Mitchell said.
The Federal Communications Commission’s 2012 report found that 6 percent of the population does not have access to broadband at minimum speeds. Nearly 25% of rural residents lack access to broadband service at threshold speeds.
Evans and Feiss believe they can make it easier for people to have better access and connections. Fiber is the best option.
“It’s almost mind-boggling what you can fit across two of these fibers,” Evans said.
“Fiber optics is the Cadillac, the gold standard of broadband technology,” Feiss said. “It’s a reliable medium and it happens to be able to deliver as much bandwidth as you can consume.”
Pieper hopes that could be an option for her home in the future.
“We’ve got a fiber wire that goes right to the end of our driveway and we can’t get high-speed internet,” she said.
It’s a service many of us take for granted.
“Having internet is just as critical as having power,” Pieper said.