By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
A proposal to enlarge the local phone service area around Havre has moved into its next phase.
Service proposed would affect much of north-central Montana from Malta to Chester, said Rick Stevens, assistant manager of Triangle Telephone Cooperative and Central Montana Communications.
"It's a rather large area," he said. "It goes across that whole north country from the Canadian border down to Big Sandy."
Customers in the area would pay a monthly rate for local phone service in that entire area. The customers also would have the option of paying a lower monthly fee and a 5-cent-a-minute charge for calls in the area.
The new local calling area also will apply to Qwest customers in Havre.
The state Public Service Commission issued findings Friday that the Havre area meets requirements to extend local phone service. The next step is for the companies involved, Triangle Telephone Cooperative, Central Montana Communications and Qwest, to submit an analysis and rate change proposal within 90 days.
The PSC decision also covers larger local calling areas around Great Falls and Lewistown.
The PSC did not approve Triangle's proposal to extend local service in the Harlowtown-Martinsdale-White Sulphur Springs area because too few people supported it, Stevens said.
Bob Rowe, chair of the PSC, said that depending on the cost analysis and the public comments about the change, the plan could go into effect fairly quickly, possibly a few months.
"We're trying to turn the extended area service cases around as quickly as possible," he said this morning.
Once the rate proposals are received, the PSC will examine the proposals, which could be complicated because of the need for agreements between the cooperatives and Qwest, he said.
When the analysis of the rate proposals is complete, Greg Jergeson, the public service commissioner for the north-central Montana area, will hold public hearings, Rowe said.
Jergeson was not available for comment this morning.
If the public comments come back with mixed support, or the PSC finds problems in the cost analysis and proposals, the PSC would ask for other proposals, Rowe said.
"That's really the goal of this is to develop proposals that meet the telecommunications needs citizens are describing to us," he said.
Gary Duncan of Qwest said his company hasn't received notification from the PSC that the communities for extended service have been approved. Once that notice is received, Qwest will start its analysis and rate proposals, he said.
Writing the analysis and proposals probably will take most of the 90 days allowed by the PSC, Duncan said.
Stevens said the cooperatives have their proposals and analysis ready and are just waiting for the official notice from the PSC to send them in.
Triangle's proposed local rates for residential service would increase from $10 to $19.95 a month. The proposed measured usage plan would have a monthly charge of $14, with 5 cents a minute charged for calls within the proposed area. CMC's charges would be different.
Customers would have a set period in which they could switch from unlimited usage to measured usage, Stevens said. Once the period is over, customers who had not switched would remain in the unlimited usage plan.
The proposed rates are subject to change by the PSC, Stevens said.
The rate changes are designed to keep the change revenue-neutral, he said. Any costs to the company in lost long-distance service, as well as other costs associated with the new service area, would be spread out to all of the company's customers in the area.
The cost to Triangle and CMC's customers is a trade-off, he added. Those customers will see a substantial increase in their monthly service charge, but will see a decrease in their long-distance charges.
"Most everything they do has a long-distance charge," Stevens said. "Some exchanges only have 150 people they can call locally."
Rowe said people can start making comments on the plan now, although the main public comment period will begin after the proposed rates are received and analyzed.
On the Net: PSC public comment form: psc.state.mt.us/PublicComment/PublicComment.htm.