Blackfoot offering more bandwidth and lower rates in Mineral County

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Blackfoot representatives Dave Martin and Joel Block gave a presentation at the St. Regis Community Center on Nov. 16. The telecommunication company announced reduced rates and faster internet connections to Mineral County customers. (Kathleen Woodford/Mineral Independent)

Blackfoot Telecommun-ications is now offering better internet services at lower prices to Mineral County customers.

This was the overriding theme to a recent meeting between the provider’s representatives and several community members on Nov. 16 at the St. Regis Community Center.

Customers could see a 33 percent decrease in their bill with packages starting at $50 a month explained Blackfoot Vice President of Operations and Marketing, Joel Block. The meeting was sponsored by the Mineral County Economic Development Corp. and the local Chamber of Commerce.

There was also a panel of representatives from various county agencies to discuss issues with the Blackfoot representatives which consisted of Block and Chief Technology Officer, Dave Martin. The panel was St. Regis Superintendent, Joe Steele; retired MSU Extension officer Kevin Chamberlain; Mineral Community Hospital Chief Financial Officer, Cliff Chase; and Charlie Thompson from Choices Counseling.

Block and Martin were part of the “Getting to Know Blackfoot” tour to discuss issues regarding phone and internet services with customers they serve. With some restrictions removed by the Federal Communications Commission along-side technological improvements, Blackfoot is able to offer customers a better deal the duo explained.

“We serve 22 communities across 65 hundred square miles in our rural coverage age,” said Martin. “It cost $30,000 to $40,000 per miles to put any kind of cable in the ground. If we wanted to bring fiber to every home in our coverage area it would cost $250 to $350 million and take 15 to 20 years to complete. There’s no one who’s going to pay $250 a month to cover those costs.”

This is why the company selects the appropriate technology and locations to serve its customers. Mineral County does not have wireless service, it has copper wire which Martin said delivers a more reliable service. He said there are boxes throughout the county and the further away a home is from that box, the more the power decreases which can be an issue for some homes.

However, the bigger issue for most customers who suffer from dropped service and slow internet connections is not enough bandwidth and old modems.

“Web pages are getting bigger,” said Martin. “In 2011 the average web pages was one megabyte in size. Now it’s four megabytes. There is also much more video imbedded in webpages and more pop-up ads when you stream online.”

For example using Facebook or Netflix requires more bandwidth, but “most customers got their service six or eight years ago and back then the speed worked for them. Now the internet load has increased four times over and the service is the same but the experience is different,” he said.

There’s also much more connection in the home between cellphones, computers, tablets, online streaming like Netflix and Hulu, plus gaming. An average home may be using four to twelve devices.

Martin explained how internet service is delivered to the home, “imagine rings that go from Missoula to Mineral County, down to Paradise, to Dixon and back to Missoula. The ultimate capacity for that ring is 320 gigabytes. Outside of that ring is a larger ring that encompasses Thompson Falls to Philipsburg and outside of that is a ring that stretches from Helena to Seattle and back around to Denver, Colorado.

One gigabyte is a thousand times larger than a megabyte and an average home uses about 40 megabtyes, “we’ve only activated about 40 gigabytes of the 320 available,” said Martin. At the busiest time of the evening the total traffic on the ring is under 5 gigabytes.

“The ring is well equipped to service any level of our community needs, including new businesses,” he explained.

A home with four or five devices may use about 23 megabytes and that service starts at $75 a month. A family of six usually uses 25 to 30 devices and 40 megabytes at a cost of $100 a month. Blackfoot also offers a new modem which can be purchased with a monthly fee.

Several Blackfoot members at the meeting said they hadn’t heard about the reduced rates. Block said they started the new services in January with a “slow rollout”. This was to insure that the technicians could keep up with the demand for the new less expensive rates. To date almost half of Mineral County residents are on new plans.

He said they have tried to reach customers through email, direct mail, ads in newspapers, through company newsletters and through their website at Blackfoot.com. Chamberlain, who had not heard about the new plans suggested they try a telephone campaign to reach customers which Block said they would consider. In the meantime, word of mouth seems to be the most common way customers have heard about it. Block said customers can call at any time and speak to a representative about getting a new plan.

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