Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The process to decide whether some long distance charges will be eliminated in north-central Montana is nearing its final stage.
Public Service Commissioner Greg Jergeson will be on the Hi-Line next week to hold public hearings about expanding local telephone service from the area around Malta to Chester and south to Big Sandy. The following week, hearings will be held about expanding local service in the Great Falls to Loma and Fort Benton-Geraldine areas, and in the Lewistown area.
"Following those hearings I'm hoping to get this wrapped up and to where the commission can make a decision," Jergeson said this morning.
Jergeson said he expects the PSC to make a decision three to four weeks after the hearings.
Rick Stevens, general manager of Triangle Telephone, said Wednesday that expanding the local calling area seems to be a hot topic.
"Many of our customers have been asking about it," he said.
Hearings will be held next Thursday in Fort Belknap and Havre and in Chester on July 30.
Triangle did a survey of its customers last year, and more than 70 percent of the people who responded supported expanding the local calling area, which would increase the base charge for their telephone service, Stevens said.
He said the strongest support was near the larger towns, with support dropping towards the edges of the proposed area.
Jergeson said the PSC decision will be made based on whether most people support or oppose the trade-off of fewer long-distance charges and a higher monthly rate.
"Also, (whether it will) be conducive to an improved economy for people to able to engage in business, both personal and merchant-type business, without the problems of long distance," he added.
The increase in monthly rates would range from $2.61 a month to $19 a month, depending on the customer's service provider and the type of connection. Co-op customers would have the choice of unlimited calling with a higher monthly charge, or a lower monthly charge with a 5-cent-a-minute charge for calls to telephones in the expanded area, with no charge in the previous local calling area.
Gail Rainey of Triangle Telephone said the system would equalize local service. Now, some neighbors are long-distance while calls to areas much farther away are local.
"If my neighbor lives five miles down the road, sometimes that's a long-distance charge," she said.
Qwest, which provides telephone service to Havre, also is in favor of expanding the local calling area, said Vincent Hancock, Qwest media representative for Montana.
"We're totally supportive of it," he said.
In the system now in place, calls between the Chester and Joplin exchanges are local, as are calls between Havre and part of southern Hill County, including Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, and calls between Havre and the the two exchanges north of Havre.
Calls from Box Elder to homes just a few miles east in the south Havre exchange or to Havre are long distance, as are calls from Kremlin ten miles west to Gildford or from Rudyard six miles west to Inverness.
To make up the lost long-distance revenue lost if the expansion is approved, Triangle Telephone would make the following changes: for an unmeasured calling plan, the monthly base rate for residential service would go from $10 to $19, the rate for combination residential/business service would go from $13.50 to $22.50 and the rate for business service would go from $17.50 to $36.50.
For a measured plan with calls in the expanded area costing 5 cents-a-minute, the monthly rate would go from $10 to $14 for residential service, from $13.50 to $17.50 for residential/business, and from $17.50 to $31.50 for business.
The base rate in Central Montana Communication's service area, including Harlem, Dodson and Malta, will increase from $14.50 to $24.50 a month for residential service, $23.50 to $33.50 for residential/business combined service and from $32.50 to $44.95 for business connections.
For a measured rate, with a 5-cent-a minute charge for calls in the expanded area, the monthly base rate will increase from $14.50 to $20.50 for residential, $23.50 to $29.50 for residential/business, and $32.50 to $38.95 for business.
Those charges don't include mandated fees, taxes and charges, like those imposed by the Federal Communications Commission.
Qwest's plan would increase the statewide expanded area service charge from $2.44 to $2.61 and apply it to the Havre exchange. The Havre exchange does not pay the current $2.44 charge, implemented in 1997 in eight regions with expanded area service.
Stevens said he hopes anyone with comments will come to the meetings, whether they support or oppose expanding the local calling area.
"If they have concerns we want them to come to the meetings," he said. "The (expanded area service) hearings are their opportunity to tell the commissioners what they think. The commissioners make the final decision."
The Fort Belknap meeting starts at 2 p.m. next Thursday at Fort Belknap Community College, followed by a meeting starting at 6 p.m. at Donaldson Commons on the Montana State University-Northern campus. The Chester meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. at the Fergus County Courthouse court room on July 30.