By Tim Leeds
High-speed Internet access is creeping into Havre, although when it will be available from your local phone service is yet to be determined.
Stellar Computer Consulting is now offering high-speed access in Havre, and Triangle Telephone Cooperative and Central Montana Communications are increasing its availability in their service area outside of Havre.
The telephone service for Havre is provided by Qwest Communications, which provides high-speed access through digital subscriber lines to some of its service areas in the West. But it may not provide it in Havre anytime soon.
"I don't know when DSL will be available from Qwest in Havre," said Qwest spokesman David Dunne.
David Shaw, owner of Stellar Computer, has been installing DSL service in Havre for about eight months, and wireless high-speed service for about three. He said he also has other services available depending on the customer's needs. The difference between those services and standard dial-up service is incredible, he said, and the satisfaction of the customers is evident after the service is installed.
"Oh, 10 or 15 percent call by the next morning to say, I didn't know what Internet service was like,'" he said. " You talk to them in a week and they say, I'm blown away.'"
In the wireless service, Stellar installs a transmitter to connect the client's computer directly to Stellar's server 24 hours a day with no interference from other Internet users.
In DSL service, the data are transmitted over a phone line that is dedicated to the Internet transmission. The hookup is also constantly on with no interference from other users.
Triangle began offering DSL service about one year ago. John Magyar, general manager of Triangle, said the company hopes to finish installing the necessary equipment to provide the service in all of its exchanges in about one more year.
There is a drawback to DSL, though. The copper phone lines are designed to transmit voices, not data. The transmission deteriorates after about three miles of transmission, requiring the installation of more infrastructure.
Devices used to strengthen and boost voice transmission actually weaken the data transmission, reducing its range even more.
"There are things on copper lines that don't like DSL," Dunne said.
Magyar said DSL should be available to about 70 percent of Triangle and Central Communication's 18,000 subscribers once the initial infrastructure for the service is available. More will have access as the equipment and infrastructure improve and are updated, he said.
But, Triangle will take care of its current subscribers before it considers offering the service in Havre, Magyar said.
"I think there's no question that as we go into the future we'd love to serve Havre," he said. "You'll never get me saying we wouldn't. My position has always been we have to take care of our own customers and the (cooperative's) board has agreed with me."
Triangle was formed by people in rural north-central Montana to provide phone service when the existing providers felt it wasn't profitable enough, Magyar said.
"We could do it less expensively because there was no profit motive," he said. "We're just trying to make that bottom line zero out."
Now that Triangle is a large and successful operation, Magyar said, the question is whether the cooperative should risk expanding its service to compete in areas against Qwest. The risk is that the existing members would have to subsidize providing that service if the investment doesn't pay off.
Until Triangle has provided all of its existing customers with DSL access, Triangle won't consider going into new areas, Magyar said.
He said Triangle has considered offering basic phone service in Havre before, but studies convinced the cooperative it would be too expensive to add its own lines without adding cost to its members.
Qwest is also interested in expanding its DSL offerings, but when it will reach towns the size of Havre is unknown.
"We're trying to roll it out as fast as possible where it's economically feasible," Dunne said.
Qwest looks at two main areas when considering where to install DSL capability, Dunne said. First, how many people are likely to subscribe and, second, whether the infrastructure supports it. They have concentrated on larger population centers first.
"We've kind of taken an approach like a rock hitting a stream," Dunne said, installing in large cities first, then moving out to outlying communities in a ripple effect.
He said Qwest has begun to move into smaller communities, with some towns smaller than 20,000 people receiving the service. But, especially following a very difficult economic year, it's impossible to say when the service will be expanded to Havre.
"I wish I could give you an exact time but I can't. More and more people, there's a hunger for DSL," Dunne said. "We want to expand it but, again, it has to make sense for our business."
Part of the question is of price to the customer. Dunne said basic DSL service from Qwest costs a flat $39.95 a month. There is an installation fee which is generally about $100.
Shaw has to install a device to connect to the server for the wireless service, with the cost varying depending on the location. The closer the client is to the server, the easier it is to make the connection. The wireless service generally costs $300 for installation, about $20 a month to lease the wireless device, and $29.90 for the first computer and $10 for each computer after that.
For the DSL service from Stellar, the customer has to lease a dedicated line from Qwest to access the server. It costs $500 to install the line, and $50 a month for the line plus $29.90 for the first computer hooked to the service and $10 for each after that.
Shaw said the prices are getting more affordable as the technology improves.
"Anytime you start with a new technology it's pretty spendy," he said. "I just wanted to give somebody a good product at a reasonable price."