By Tim Leeds
A telephone cooperative is asking its members whether they are interested in extending their local calling area, at the cost of an increased basic service charge.
"We (would) take what our costs are for long distance and roll them into a local charge," said John Magyar, general manager of Triangle Telephone Cooperative.
Magyar said the increase in local residential charges for a co-op member in the Havre area would go from $10 a month to $19.95. The local rate for Qwest, which provides service in Havre, is $24.92, he said.
Those charges don't include mandated fees, taxes and charges, like those imposed by the Federal Communications Commission.
An alternate proposal is to increase the rate from $10 to $14 plus 5 cents per minute for calls in the extended service area that are now considered long-distance, Magyar said.
Long-distance rates outside of the service area would continue to be the rate charged by the subscriber's long-distance company. Triangle's long-distance provider, Montana In Touch, charges 12 cents a minute, Christy Keto of Montana In Touch said.
If the co-op members support expanded-area service, the proposition would then move to the state Public Service Commission, since it would include Qwest customers, Magyar said. If the area only affected Triangle co-op customers, the co-op's board could implement the decision, he added.
The PSC has to determine there is a "community of interest" before it approves the action, Magyar said. Triangle is conducting the survey to have factual evidence that there is interest, he said.
Keto said Qwest will have to go through its own process with the PSC to implement the extended-area service. The company has told Triangle it will cooperate with the process, she added.
One reason Triangle wanted to create the extended-area service was the inequity in the current service areas, Magyar said.
"Someone from Rocky Boy calling Box Elder had to pay long distance. I found that difficult to understand," Magyar said.
In contrast, calls from Havre to Rocky Boy are local calls, though calls from Havre to Box Elder incur long-distance charges.
If the extended-area service is approved, it will create an area in north-central Montana from Malta to Chester and south to Big Sandy where all calls would be local calls.
Participation in the service will be mandatory for Triangle members. That, and the fact that the increased benefits may not be equal for all subscribers is one of the reasons the co-op is collecting feedback. Triangle mailed postage-paid postcards for members to send back with their responses by Jan. 17.
While the north-central region is the largest extended-area service proposed, Triangle and its subsidiary, Central Montana Communications, are looking at extending local service in three other areas- the Great Falls area, the Lewistown area and the White Sulphur Springs-Harlowton-Martinsdale exchanges.
Loma, Geraldine and Fort Benton would be included in the Great Falls exchange.
One of the reasons north-central Montana ended up with such a large extended-area service proposal was the difficulty in deciding which communities should be grouped together, Magyar said.
"We couldn't decide how to cut the pie. It depends on who you talk to," he said. "You take an area like Rudyard, where does it go?"
Triangle was involved in an extended-area service proposal in the Billings area. That project, which included Qwest, Triangle Telephone and Project Telephone exchanges, took several years to complete, he said. Mid-Rivers Telephone Cooperative is still in the process of adding its exchanges to the local service area there.
Using Triangle's experience in the Billings extended-area service should speed up the process of implementing the new service areas if they are approved, Magyar said.
A consulting company was hired to determine the necessary basic service charge increase.