Internet in south Lincoln County: The sky is the limit for connectivity potential in Libby, Troy

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  • Montana Sky headend technician Randy Lindsey shows one of the "cards" that was part of the recent upgrade Montana Sky made at their Libby headend, allowing them to double bandwidth they could provide to customers. (Ben Kibbey/The Western News)

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    Battery backups sit ready to kick in at the Libby headend for Montana Sky. In addition to a large generator that sits outside the plant, the batteries ensure the company's service stays up during power interruptions. (Ben Kibbey/The Western News.)

  • Montana Sky headend technician Randy Lindsey shows one of the "cards" that was part of the recent upgrade Montana Sky made at their Libby headend, allowing them to double bandwidth they could provide to customers. (Ben Kibbey/The Western News)

  • 1

    Battery backups sit ready to kick in at the Libby headend for Montana Sky. In addition to a large generator that sits outside the plant, the batteries ensure the company's service stays up during power interruptions. (Ben Kibbey/The Western News.)

In the south of Lincoln County, there are two high speed Internet providers for those who don’t want to use satellite Internet. They are locally-owned company Montana Sky and national network Frontier Communications.

Currently, Frontier maintains the only fiber optic line going into Troy from the Idaho side. Fiber that comes into Libby from the east is maintained by Montana Sky, though they also use wireless transmission to extend their service over the terrain to Troy.

Jason Moothart, general manager at Interbel — the cooperative that provides phone and Internet service in Eureka — said that the cooperative is doing some preliminary market research to see if it would be economically feasible to expand service into the south of Lincoln County.

So far, they have looked primarily at providing service to just the Libby area, he said. However, he stressed that they have no plans to expand service to this area, and would need to make sure their current member needs are not negatively impacted by any expansion, which could cost millions of dollars.

Frontier

Javier Mendoza, vice president for Corporate Communications and External Affairs with Frontier responded by email that their DSL network in the Troy area is run off of their fiber optic circuit that runs from Coeur d’Alene.

However, DSL is still reliant on copper phone lines for connecting DSL customers back to the fiber backbone.

Mendoza also noted that fiber-to-premise circuits are available “to businesses who invest in the connection.”

For those business customers willing to pay for the connection, Frontier is able to take that connection up to 1-gigabit, he said.

For regular customers outside the city limits, the distance from service units at Savage Lake, Kootenai Vista, Yaak Hut and Lake Creek 1 (the new, Connect America Fund site) determine how fast their connection will be, he stated.

For those wishing to upgrade their residential connection, Mendoza stated that Frontier does upgrades “on a case-by-case basis following careful review and detailed analysis.”

However, some Frontier sites are capped due to capacity, and cannot accept any new subscribers connecting in, he stated.

In regard to what customers who upgrade their Frontier service can expect in terms of increased subscription fees, Mendoza responded, “Frontier is committed to providing affordable, reliable, and sustainable telephone and internet service to our customers and the Montana communities we serve, and monthly service rates are established in a competitive market environment. Our decision to enhance service is not connected to monthly rates and upgrades are on a case-by-case basis following careful review and detailed analysis. In general customers will get the best value in bundled service packages that have contract-based price protections.”

Montana Sky

Amber Pacheco-Holm, marketing director and enterprise sales manager at Montana Sky, said that not only has Montana Sky completed recent upgrades that increased the bandwidth they can offer customers, but they have capacity to grow without upgrading anything other than electronic components.

Recent equipment upgrades at their “headends” in both Libby and Troy allow both better upload and download speeds, she said. The upgrade in Libby — replacing a single piece of equipment — essentially doubled speeds.

The fastest package Montana Sky can provide to residential customers in Libby is 50 megabits upload by 10 megabits download. In Troy, the service is 30 megabits by 10 megabits.

“The way we consume Internet is changing,” Pacheco-Holm said. “Everyone just wants faster speeds — especially for business.”

Pacheco-Holm said that Montana Sky already has customers who work from home for large software companies, as well as some who make much of their income over Twitch (an Internet streaming service catering primarily to gamers and musicians).

For those using the Internet for business, just receiving data quickly isn’t enough, she said. They also need to be able to send large amounts of data quickly.

Aside from data caps, a common complaint for those trying to use satellite internet for things such as a virtual workspace is the lag in transmissions when uploading.

Outside of the city limits in Libby, Montana Sky also offers Sky Connect, Pacheco-Holm said. From a wireless transmitter coming off Sheldon Mountain, they are able to provide 30 megabits by 2 megabits.

“SkyConnect is a great product. It’s faster and more reliable than DSL,” she said. It also allows them to connect subscribers without installing expensive infrastructure.

And, unlike DSL, SkyConnect speeds do not drop off for customers further down the line from the service unit, she said.

Jeremy Holm, Montana Sky’s director of outside plant, oversees infrastructure. He said that for a private company such as Montana Sky that doesn’t have the subsidies and special considerations of a telephone company, having less infrastructure is a big deal.

New transmitters also use the same LTE technology that cell phones use, Holm said. So, anything less than a constant wall of snow won’t noticeably impact the service.

“That’s why we went with the transmitters we did, knowing we get some inclement weather here,” he said. Additionally, since there is fiber optic running right up to the tower on Sheldon Mountain, there are no issues with lag over SkyConnect.

“It’s not microwave or anything. It’s fiber-optically fed, just like those cell towers are,” Holm said.

Once the Sheldon Mountain transmitter has reached capacity for customers who can connect to it, the company plans to upgrade to a higher-capacity transmitter, Pacheco-Holm said. They would then move the current transmitter to a new area and begin offering service there, and begin the process over again.

There is even potential that if a cell phone tower were connected to Montana Sky’s fiber backbone along Highway 2, such as in the Happys Inn area, Montana Sky could take advantage of that to offer wireless Internet in such an area, Holm said.

Potential

Holm said that Montana Sky is close to being able to double their service to homes that are hard-wired, taking them up to 100 megabits download speeds. The difference comes down to upgrading electronic components in the network, and would not require anything such as new lines.

In addition, they are able to do all of the work — from basic repairs to full installs of new infrastructure — in-house, they said.

“We have a fully-functional, fully-staffed construction crew,” Holm said. That makes a big difference in service, since even if the fiber optic backbone itself were ever damaged, the people making the repairs would come out of Libby, not from hundreds of miles away.

Holm, whose phone “blows up” when there is an issue to resolve, said that he thinks having that local connection for service makes a big difference for them.

Montana Sky is also moving over business customers and other larger consumers to direct-fiber connections, Holm said. That also makes it easier to keep bandwidth open for everyone, by moving larger consumers off of the network that services residential customers.

For most Montana Sky customers, the final leg of their connection goes over coaxial cable from a node that connects into the fiber optic network.

However, Montana Sky headend technician Randy Lindsey said that the way they set up of their nodes — the 37 points around Libby where the coaxial cable connects to the fiber — ensures non-commercial customers still have all the speed they need.

“We have great infrastructure in Libby, and people don’t always understand that,” Pacheco-Holm said. They even have the capacity to bring a connection up to 1 gigabit.

“We could, without bogging down the network in Libby, have a call center here,” she said.

Pocheco-Holm said that she sees nothing standing in the way of a business that needs essentially unlimited bandwidth locating in Libby, aside from letting them know that the capacity is here.

Conceptually, for a business in Libby, there is no difference for them from if they were sitting in Missoula, Holm said.

“Whatever is available in Missoula is available here in Libby,” he said. “Fiber doesn’t have a limit. We are only limited by the electronics.”

Montana Sky is also working on breaking into a new market: phone service.

The main holdup at the moment on phone service is getting things cleared for 911 calls, allowing phones connected through Montana Sky to work the same as a landline phone for locating a caller in an emergency, Pacheco-Holm said. Once they have that red tape figured out, she is hopeful they could be providing phone service in a matter of months.

Montana Sky also wants to expand hardwire connections to residential areas outside of Libby, Holm said. For that, it’s a matter of balancing the cost.

To make it cost effective to run new fiber optic into an area, the rule of thumb is that they need three customers per mile to make it cost effective, Pacheco-Holm said.

Holm said that, as someone who grew up here and was directly involved in running fiber optic to Libby in the first place, improving service here is a personal mission.

“I just take it personally that everybody in this town get a decent Internet connection, and are happy with it — and we’re trying,” Holm said. “It’s a hometown product.”

Due to terrain, it would be very difficult and expensive to run fiber optic from Libby to Troy, Holm said.

“If we found a genie in a bottle, and got three three wishes, one of them would be for a direct line to Troy,” he said.

While they are trying to find funding options such as grants, Holm estimated that it would cost about $1 million to tie Troy in directly. Currently, all their service to Troy is fed wirelessly.

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