For many people, Internet access is more than a need.
At Vision Net in Great Falls, MT, they connect the state’s small ISPs to the rest of the world.
âWe are behind the scenes,â said Gary Evans, director of operations at Vision Net. “Most of them in Montana go through us to get out into the world.”
Vision Net is a network operations center or intermediate carrier.
âWe’ll get their traffic through here, through their network, where it needs to go,â Evans said.
It all happens in a data center on top of a hill outside of town.
âIt used to be just a fun thing to have around the house, and now it’s an essential service,â Evans said. â911 crosses our network throughout much of the state. We carry 911 traffic, one of the things we do behind the scenes. So if our network goes down, a lot of people won’t be able to call 911. â
Montana is currently one of the worst states for Internet connectivity.
âThere’s a lot of dirt between the bulbs in Montana. We’re just a small town with long streets, âsaid Geoff Feiss, CEO of the Montana Telecommunications Association. âBy some standards, we are 51st in the country for broadband accessibility to state consumers. How do you manage to be 51? You add DC in there.
The association represents the state’s local service providers.
âWe’re a big state, not a lot of consumers. It is very difficult to serve. It’s just an expensive place to serve, âFeiss said. “New Jersey, Delaware or Connecticut are states that can fit into a few counties in Montana with millions of consumers and the cost of providing services much lower.”
The infrastructure bill under consideration by the federal government could help this city and other rural communities.
âThis would provide $ 42.5 billion for broadband infrastructure investments,â Feiss said.
It’s not just the lack of access. In some areas, it’s more cost or quality.
âAnyone within five miles of Cascade, our options are extremely limited,â said Nichole Pieper, junior high and high school principal at Cascade Public Schools.
The school accommodates 300 students from kindergarten to grade 12. They are opening the school up to families and students who need to use the internet, because just outside of town, Pieper says the connection can be hit or miss.
âWe’re only seven miles from town and we’re struggling to find options. I have probably contacted more than five providers, and each of them said to me, âSorry, we don’t have internet available at your address right now,â she explained.
She currently has internet which is slow and does not work well during peak hours. Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance said this is common for residents of rural areas.
âThere are a lot of places that seem, in the national database, like they have a service, but that network just doesn’t work very often,â Mitchell said.
A 2012 report by the Federal Communications Commission found that 6% of the population still does not have access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds. In rural areas, nearly 25% of the population does not have access to this service.
Feiss and Evans hope they can help deliver better access and connection to those who need it, with fiber being the desired option.
âIt’s almost mind-boggling how much you can get across two of these fibers,â Evans said.
âFiber optics is the Cadillac, the gold standard in broadband technology,â Feiss said. âIt’s a reliable medium and it happens to be able to deliver as much bandwidth as you can consume. “
Pieper hopes this might be an option for his house in the future.
âWe have a fiber thread that goes all the way down our driveway and we can’t access high speed internet,â she said.
It’s a service that many of us take for granted.
âHaving the Internet is just as essential as having electricity,â Pieper said.