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Co-op bringing high-speed internet service to Lake County

by CAROLYN HIDY
Lake County Leader | July 15, 2021 12:30 AM

When the pandemic hit last year, the limitations of rural internet service became immediately apparent. With multiple family members going online for schooling, telemedicine and work, many households found their networks too slow to provide all the service they needed all at once.

A local, user-owned internet cooperative being spearheaded by Mission West Community Development Partners could soon significantly improve that situation.

The Pacific Northwest Rural Broadband Alliance, a Missoula-based nonprofit, is helping communities set up neighbor-to-neighbor wireless internet systems for local broadband at speeds that can handle whatever a family or business needs, even far off the beaten path. They have developed a successful network of this type in the Grant Creek area north of Missoula, proving the system can offer at least 100 mbps for both upload and download speeds affordably. They will soon expand that system as far as Hamilton, Frenchtown and Bonner.

“The technology exists now that we can build a solution that is owned and operated by the communities,” said Elvis Nuno of the alliance. “Our organization’s goal is to provide communities the tools and support they need to be able to take the power into their own hands and solve this [broadband access] problem that they are all collectively facing, together. Communities don’t have to wait around for big corporations to do it. They can do it themselves.”

Kaylee Thornley, director of Mission West’s Cooperative Development Center, is helping bring the concept to Lake County. She had read about similar networks being successful in remote areas, including eastern Oregon and South Africa. A steering committee has been set up to help the process develop locally.

By some measures, rural Montana is rated last in the nation for modern broadband internet access, Nuno said. Large national internet service providers often do not find it profitable to reach out-of-the-way places, the “last mile” of the network. Even if fast broadband is available, it can be expensive. The “digital divide” describes the gap between high speed internet often available in urban areas and areas of wealth, and the rest of the world, which either has slow speeds or lacks access completely.

Most residents are still served by copper phone lines, or DSL, put in place decades ago as phone access was brought to nearly every home. These lines transmit a small amount of data, typically 10 to 20 megabits per second (mbps) download, and 1 to 2 mbps upload. At DSL speeds, there simply isn’t enough data speed (bandwidth) to meet high-use demands without delays. Local companies such as Blackfoot Telecommunications and Access Montana are working to replace those lines, over the next several years, with fiber optic cables, which will increase the speed considerably.

But a cutting edge platform called Althea enables an entirely different concept that helps reach the “last mile” affordably, quickly and reliably, Nuno and Thornley explained. With Althea, communities are able to set up a wireless network whose nodes are owned by the local residents who not only receive internet through them, but also relay it to their neighbors. Multiple pathways are set up to provide better protection against outages, and the more the system builds, the faster and more reliable it gets.

The system is metered, meaning each customer pays only for the amount of internet they use, as with other utilities like electric and water, and can tune their router to the speed they need. Gamers and software developers may choose to pay more for faster speeds, while someone who only surfs the web and streams movies might need less speed and choose to pay less. When they are away and not using the web, they pay nothing, unlike plans with a monthly fee.

Since the system is cooperatively owned, each person who contributes a relay place on their barn or house (or a tower in their field, perhaps) will receive compensation directly proportional to the amount of internet their site provides to the network, Nuno said. His organization will be able to provide inexpensive bandwidth to the co-op by contracting with wholesale bandwidth providers. Lumens is the broadband provider for the Grant Creek and Missoula area co-op network, but the alliance plans to use a fiber optic connection from Blackfoot at the next gateway constructed in Missoula.

Payment is managed through a block chain software, so the massive sales, call center, billing and collections expenses are nonexistent, eliminating that major cost. This can help keep the cost to the consumer down considerably. Even people who have lost service due to non-payment in the past can sign up with a co-op because they don’t have to have credit to get service. Payment is preloaded. However, Nuno said even if users deplete prepaid service and cannot afford more until the next paycheck, for example, their service will not be cut off, but simply dropped down to a free tier of 2 mbps, so they will always have at least some internet access.

Another thing that motivates Nuno in this endeavor is providing training and well-paid jobs in a field of cutting edge technology, something he had to leave his home state of Montana to gain, working for large ISP companies in Seattle.

“This offers the economic benefits that the internet itself provides by connecting up with the globalized economy, as well as generating highly desirable and highly rewarding skilled labor jobs that are going to be there into the future,” he said.

“It would not have been possible for me to have the career here in Montana that I got out in Seattle,” Nuno said. “But with the alliance helping places like Mission Valley start this broadband cooperative, that not only helps provide these areas with the broadband service they need, but helps found local organizations that create highly skilled, sustainable jobs that Montana really needs. These technicians who work for these broadband cooperatives will get to learn, hands on, how to build and maintain the internet, modern broadband systems with cutting edge technology.” Partnerships with local ISPs, installers and other local businesses are also very important to the organization, he said.

Residents interested in the Mission Valley Internet Co-op can pre-register at althea.net/polson.

“This is not a commitment; it doesn’t mean they have to get the service,” Nuno said. “It just expresses interest, and shows us where the demand would be. This helps us map where the demand exists so we can plan out where to focus our resources and energy in building out the network.” He said the open, relatively flat, open landscape of Mission and Jocko Valleys will make installation very easy and quick, as the network relies on line of site connections.

For more information on the nonprofit organization helping communities develop these co-ops, visit nwbroadbandalliance.org.

The Pacific Northwest Rural Broadband Alliance will very soon be the first Montana company to launch an investor campaign on Crowdfund Montana, a platform that allows investors of any size to invest in small businesses looking to make a difference in Montana’s local economies.

“The money that we raise from this campaign is going to help us scale out our Missoula network, as well as launch the Mission Valley Internet Co-op, and a third location yet to be finalized,” Nuno said.

The Missoula network, now serving 50 customers in the Grant Creek area, has 500 pre-registrants for their expansion to serve the Missoula and Bitterroot Valleys down to Hamilton and out to Frenchtown and Bonner this summer.

“This will be our first major infusion of capital into our organization that will really allow us to scale out and meet the incredible amount of demand that we’ve received.”

“We’ve worked really hard with the soft launch in Grant Creek making sure it’s really going to be the technology that we need to provide the speeds we’re advertising, at the costs we’re advertising, the whole relay system works, and it does, it’s working great. All of our customers are super happy. They’re getting the speeds we advertised, and the relay hosts are earning money for hosting the relays.”

The group intends to set up the Mission Valley network (which will include the Arlee area) near the end of the year.