By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Within six months, people in north-central Montana will be able to make local telephone calls across several counties.
The state Public Service Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to approve an expanded area of service for Qwest and Triangle Telephone Cooperative and its subsidiary, Central Montana Communications, Commissioner Greg Jergeson of Chinook said Wednesday.
He said the choice was difficult.
"It's kind of one of those difficult kinds of dilemmas because there are customers better off with the (expanded service) and there are customers better off without it," he said. "There is really no way to reconcile the two."
Telephone customers will be charged more each month but can make local calls in an area ranging from the areas of Malta to Chester, and south to Big Sandy. Triangle customers will have an option of a lower monthly increase and a charge of 5 cents a minute in the expanded area.
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, and calls between Havre and the two exchanges north of Havre.
Calls from Box Elder to homes on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation are long distance, as are calls from Kremlin 10 miles west to Gildford or from Rudyard 6 miles west to Inverness.
Jergeson said people who make many long-distance calls in the area will save money, but people who don't won't offset the extra charge.
The PSC gave the companies 180 days to implement the expanded local calling area.
Triangle Telephone proposed expanding the area about two years ago, after conducting a survey of its customers.
Rick Stevens, general manager of Triangle Telephone, said close to 75 percent of the surveys supported expanding the local calling areas.
"We're just glad that the issue has been brought at least to a conclusion," he said. "Many of our customers have asked about it many times."
The new local-calling area will include Havre, which is served by Qwest. That requires Triangle Telephone and its subsidiary, Central Montana Communications, to work with Qwest to implement the changes.
Vince Hancock, Qwest media representative for Montana, said his company will work to have the changes in place by the deadline.
Stevens said it will probably take the full 180 days. Triangle Telephone worked with Qwest in setting up an expanded local-calling area in the Billings area a few years ago, and it took the entire 180 days, he said.
Implementing the plan will require setting up new equipment, installing new software and reaching and implementing agreements with Qwest, he said.
Triangle Telephone Cooperative and Central Montana Communications customers will have the option of a lower monthly increase with a 5-cent-a-minute charge, or a higher monthly rate and free calls in the area. Qwest customers in Havre will automatically have free local calling in the extended area with a monthly fee of $2.61.
The amount of the increase for cooperative customers depends on which company provides the service and what kind of service the customer has. In Triangle Telephone's service area, the rates for unlimited local calling will increase $9 a month.
For residential service, the charge will go to $19 a month, for a combination business-residential service the charge will increase to $22.50, and for business service the charge will be $36.50.
Fees, taxes and other charges, like those imposed by the Federal Communications Commission, are in addition to those monthly rates.
The unlimited local rates for the CMC 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 service, and from $32.50 to $44.95 for business connections.
If a customer prefers keeping the current local calling area and having a 5-cent-a-minute charge in the expanded area, the rate will increase $4 a month for Triangle customers and about $6 a month for customers of CMC.