Gianforte talks to local cooperatives
U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., was in Havre Wednesday, talking with Triangle Communications and Hill County Electric Cooperative representatives and the Hill County commissioners about budget caps, service plans and other issues.
During the meeting, Gianforte, who is facing a challenge in his bid for re-election by Democrat Kathleen Williams of Bozeman and Libertarian Elinor Swanson from Billings, said good, reliable communication service is important in these rural areas and impacts entire communities.
He added that he started his career in communications and understands the importance of the issue. He told Triangle and Hill County Electric CEO Craig Gates it might be helpful to contact U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who has jurisdiction over all broadband.
He added that if Triangle Communications was able to expand it could possibly bring back jobs to Montana.
Gates said, from their perspective, the last administration capped the Universal Service Fund.
Gates was referring to the FCC freezing budget amounts in 2011, with no inflationary factors considered in the freeze. In 2016, the FCC changed the amount and way cooperatives like Triangle receive Universal Service Funds.
The Universal Service Fund is a cost recovery mechanism for building and maintaining the communications network. It is paid into by all users of regulated communications utilities and is used in rural areas to ensure that they have similar costs and services as more populated areas.
Gates said the Universal Service Fund also aids in installing fiber optic lines in the coverage area. The cooperative is working on doing that because fiber optics have a longer life span than copper lines and require less maintenance, he said, adding that the company has already spent more than $20 million in the project. By the end of 2017 Triangle installed more than 7,000 miles and has 4,500 more miles until the job is finished.
It is important to finish the job, Gates said.
Gates said the FCC's rules on the Mobility Fund II Challenge Process also has problems.
Companies such as Verizon say they have coverage in any particular area even if they do not provide service to those areas, he said, adding that it is important that these claims be refuted.
Gates said Triangle believes that Verizon is overstating its network and coverage area, and used a map of Verizon's coverage to make his point.
To prove this is not true, Triangle would have to go out and prove no coverage in 70 percent of every 600 square feet as is required in the rules, Gates said. The time and expense to do this would be astronomical for a carrier the size of Triangle, he added.
The FCC has extended the challenge process time frame, although the time frame is not stated specifically, but has not changed the rules, Gates said.
Gates also talked to Gianforte about developments of plans of to build a cell tower in between Malta and Harlem.
Gates said the tower would be placed in a salvage yard to cooperate with buffer regulations regarding protecting greater sage grouse, but the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has slowed the process because fear of endangering the sage grouse population.
He added that the estimated cost of putting a tower at that location, as of July, would be $1.8 million, which Gates said was a large amount.
Gianforte said he would like to be kept informed of the situation and will work to find a solution, adding that not having a tower in the location could be a safety concern due to lack of communication in emergency situation.
He also asked if the Hill County commissioners agreed with the plan of building a cell tower, which they said they did.
Gianforte said Triangle Communications should feel free to be in contact with his office and he will work with them on finding a solution to the issues brought up during the meeting.