By Tim Leeds
Only one member of the public turned out Tuesday night to hear how local businesses responded to a survey about their technology needs. But the survey's organizers don't think that really reflects how important the survey is.
"This, I think, is a tremendous document and a powerful tool, and it would be a shame if it went in a drawer in a file cabinet and didn't get used," Craig Erickson, planner for Bear Paw Development, said at the presentation.
Now Bear Paw plans to take its message to people like Havre's mayor and City Council and the Hill County commissioners, local business people and educators to talk about how the survey results can be translated into action.
The end result is to tie the entire business community into advanced technology already available and increase the technology Havre has.
"We just need to start talking about this issue," Erickson said Tuesday night. "We'd like to get a discussion going in the community."
Bear Paw conducted the survey through the mail and online to find out how businesses are using telecommunications technology and what they plan to use in the future. Kate McMahon of Applied Communication in Great Falls helped conduct the survey and design the plan of action.
McMahon, who has conducted similar surveys around the country, said this is the first survey of its kind in Montana. That puts Havre in an excellent position, she said. Other communities around the country have directly benefited because of similar technology assessments.
"It's been a real catalyst for action," she said.
For example, she said, Douglas, Wyo., found out while doing its survey that the cable company serving the area was looking to relocate its headquarters from Colorado. Douglas not only got the headquarters, but it became a test market for cable-modem Internet access. Douglas had cable-modem access before Seattle or Denver, McMahon said.
Randy Hanson, regional development officer for the Montana Department of Commerce, said having a technology survey is becoming a common requirement just to apply for many state and federal programs.
"It gets the door open," he added.
Hanson has been keeping the Department of Commerce updated on the progress of the survey. It's being looked at as a model for other communities in the state, he said.
Erickson said Gov. Judy Martz's office has also been asking about the survey.
"This whole project has attracted attention not just locally but statewide," he said.
Some of the steps in the survey's plan of action are the community promoting high-speed access through digital subscriber lines and wireless service, investigating getting a fiber-optic connection for Montana State University-Northern, promoting using Internet government and commercial services, and establishing a group to implement the plan.
One reason the survey was limited to Havre and did not encompass all of Bear Paw's service area was that the area covered by Triangle Telephone Cooperative and Central Montana Communication already has high-speed access, Erickson said.
Bear Paw executive director Paul Tuss said Bear Paw plans to survey outside Havre in the future. But the main problem is in Havre, he said.
It's ironic that the largest community in north-central Montana has the poorest Internet connections, Tuss said.
That is common, McMahon said. Independent providers generally provide the best service for small and rural communities across the country.
Local phone service in Havre is provided by Qwest, which does not have high-speed service here. The only high-speed service in town is available from Stellar Computers.
"Qwest has every intention of supplying DSL to all its areas," McMahon said. "It's just going to take them a lot longer than you want it to."
Dave Shaw of Stellar Computers has been installing DSL and wireless high-speed access in Havre this spring. He said today that the process is going well, and will soon be expanded.
"It's loads of fun," he said.
Customers can use wireless access only if they can see the home unit. Right now, customers in a line of sight with the transceivers at the Atrium Mall, the Holiday Village Shopping Center or Park View Apartments can receive the service.
Shaw is expanding the area he covers.
"I have to, to see the whole town," he said.
He hopes to have a transceiver installed on the tower south of Havre on Cement Hill within 30 days, which will cover most of a 10-mile radius. Shaw is also working on expanding his coverage to other areas in the community.
Stellar has about 85 high-speed customers now, mostly businesses using wireless access and a few DSL customers, Shaw said. He has a waiting list of 20 customers who can be served once the equipment is installed on the tower.
The survey could create huge opportunities for Havre, Hanson said. History shows that businesses that won't use the Internet are going out of business because major companies won't deal with them.
The survey showed that Havre is well-served in some telecommunications areas, but is poorly served or uses services poorly in others.
Qwest has quality fiber lines going out of Havre, but none within the community, McMahon said. The city has a good selection of dial-up access and services like video conferencing, but limited high-speed access.
Most of the businesses responding to the survey were small businesses, which are less likely to have Web pages, McMahon said. But even factoring that in, the number of businesses using the Internet is very small.
Less than 25 percent of the respondents have Web pages, compared with 50 to 70 percent of most communities in the country.
Some high-tech factors here are attractive to potential residents or businesses, like the systems at the university, public schools and library, McMahon said. Others, like the lack of business space wired for high-speed access and lack of interest in Internet government and commerce applications, are a drawback.
It's amazing which companies want high-speed access, Erickson said. Two businesses showing great interest are an area grocery store and a filling station that want top-of-the-line technology for bookkeeping and communications.
"That kind of brought it home for me that this is very important," he said.
When she did a survey in Colorado, McMahon said, the major user of telecommunications was a livestock yard. Another group starting to use the Internet a lot are trucking companies, she added, which use e-mail to send driving assignments.