Forum looks at benefits of high-quality internet

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The benefits and barriers to bringing widespread broadband internet access to the valley was debated at a forum Wednesday on Flathead Valley Community College’s Kalispell campus.

The purpose of the forum, co-hosted by Montana West Economic Development and the Northwest Montana Association of Realtors, was to bring stakeholders together and coordinate an effort to get high-quality broadband internet to the valley.

Kim Crowley, director of the Kalispell ImagineIf Library, said their organization sees one of their roles in the community as helping bridging the digital divide for people who don’t have adequate internet access at home. She said the goal for a library of Kalispell’s size would be to have a download and upload speed of 1 gigabyte each. She said the library currently is far short of that goal with 50 megabytes in each direction.

Crowley said that last year 115,000 people used wireless internet at ImagineIf spaces in the Flathead Valley, and another 85,000 logged on to computers at the libraries.

“People are using the internet at the library all the time,” Crowley said. “There are a lot of people who don’t have internet at home.”

With that many people on the internet, getting better service is key to the library’s ability to perform their function in the community. Crowley said their budget was cut and it was making it more difficult to offer these services.

She said it was common to see people outside the library in Bigfork taking advantage of the wireless internet, even when the library was closed.

She added that the ImagineIf network was also a big proponent of net neutrality legislation, and was another key piece in making sure that the Internet was open to the people they serve.

Libraries also perform a key service of helping people learn to use digital devices.

“These are your customers and also your future employees,” Crowley said. “Broadband is critical to this.”

Mike Hausler, director of information technology with Flathead County, said broadband connections were also critical for his organization to provide the service the public expects.

He said he has been in his position for the last year and a half after working for places that had better connectivity. When he arrived here, he was surprised at how much catching up there was to do.

“Flathead County was, and I think will be for a bit, a little behind the curve,” Hausler said.

He said that when the county had critical messages to relay to its residents, more and more they are turning to social media to get that message out.

“Social media is how we communicate with our customers,” Hausler said.

Ahyoung Huff, executive director of the Health Information Exchange of Montana, said the hospitals and health care centers across the western part of the state had worked to secure grants and other sources of funding for their own connections between hospitals. This would allow specialists to be consulted and patient information to be shared between providers with a higher degree of reliability.

She said that money also often came with stipulations about who can and cannot use the internet, and it was usually limited to health care providers and universities, limiting the ability of the general public to tap into the infrastructure they had established.

Wednesday’s event was held in the wake of a widespread internet outage Sunday that occurred when a tree landed on a power line in Woods Bay that included some fiber optics cable.

The outage triggered a lot of questions about redundancy, and the importance of having a backup to get internet to key areas, such as first-responder services and the 911 dispatch center.

Internet service providers, including representatives from Charter Communications, Velocity LTE, Century Link, Montana Sky and Bullitt Communications all gave their point of view, and agreed that funding was the biggest obstacle keeping them from getting everyone the Internet service they wanted.

They said it was a competitive industry, and the expensive work of burying fiber optic cables or stringing it above ground drained resources.

Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or pfrissell@dailyinterlake.com.

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