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The Broadband at the End of the Tunnel
CenturyLink-Qwest deal could provide long-awaited high speed internet for West Glacier
West Glacier resident Chuck Brasen, center, addresses Mary Taylor, Calvin Simshaw, Jeremy Ferkin (with CenturyLink), Sarah Carlson, Ken Toole (with the Public Service Commission) and David Gibson and Mark Reynolds (with Qwest), from left, about his hopes of broadband internet access being accessible to the area at the West Glacier Elementary School. - Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
WEST GLACIER – A hearing on a proposed acquisition of Qwest by CenturyLink drew nearly 50 residents to the elementary school here to find out if the deal could – finally – bring broadband Internet access to the area. The answer West Glacier residents received was: probably.

“We’re quite confident that we can get creative on how to solve the problem,” Jeremy Ferkin, vice president and general manager of CenturyLink’s Rocky Mountain market, said. “Once the approvals are done, it’s a relatively easy thing.”

Ferkin offered the caveat that, by law, he isn’t privy to information on the condition of Qwest’s telecom facilities in West Glacier, which would be a factor in offering broadband. That also makes it unclear how easily or quickly broadband could be extended toward Essex. And the acquisition of Qwest by CenturyLink still requires the approval of the Public Service Commission in Montana, along with 11 other states and the Federal Communications Commission. The PSC hearing on the merger is scheduled for Nov. 22-23.

Qwest and Centurytel aim to have the deal done by the first half of 2011, and Ferkin pledged he would hold a public meeting in West Glacier within 30 days of completion.

“That’s a commitment we’ll make whether I sit in this chair or someone else sits in this chair,” he said. “I don’t control the FCC, but I’d really love to get this happening faster rather than later.”

Everyone who spoke at the hearing, moderated by District 5 PSC Commissioner Ken Toole, expressed support for the deal, and many related the extreme difficulty of doing business with dial-up Internet access.

Ed McMillian, a manager of Glacier Haven RV and Campground in Essex, said potential guests sometimes hang up on him when they learn they can’t make online reservations. Chuck Brasen said his wife, Monica Jungsten, who owns a gift shop in Apgar, dropped the Internet portion of her business four years ago because it was impossible via dial-up. Sally Thompson, a co-owner of Glacier Raft Company, said local entrepreneurs are “pulling our hair out trying to figure out how to run a business when you need high-speed Internet.”

“We’re falling behind,” she added.

And Beth Blacker said her kids graduated from West Glacier Elementary years ago, before high-speed Internet was a necessity, but, “if they were in school right now I would probably send them to Columbia Falls, because they can’t compete.”

The comments underscored the frustration felt by many living in West Glacier served by Qwest, which runs its telecom lines from east of Glacier National Park. Exacerbating those frustrations is the fact that Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Glacier Park employees have access to higher speed Internet connections than those living in West Glacier and the surrounding area.

David Gibson, Qwest’s state president for Montana, told the crowd it would be easier for CenturyLink to extend its broadband access a short distance east from the rest of the Flathead.

“The engineering that we have to do is a lot more onerous,” Gibson said. “The merger will make it a whole lot simpler and probably a lot faster.”

The acquisition of Denver-based Qwest by Louisiana-based CenturyLink in what is a $10.6-billion deal will make CenturyLink the third-largest telecommunications company in the nation, serving 37 states. The deal was announced in April.

But some of the concerns surrounding the deal remain substantial. Though no one from the Montana Consumer Counsel was present at the West Glacier hearing, Toole distributed a statement by the counsel that questioned whether the merger would benefit Montanans at all, and noted both companies, which are major providers of landline telephone service, have been losing subscribers for years.

“Although CenturyLink claims that it will achieve $625 million in ‘synergy’ savings, there is no regulatory means at this time to guarantee any sharing of those savings with Qwest’s Montana customers,” the Montana Consumer Counsel statement said.

The counsel recommended the PSC only approve the merger if it imposes several conditions, including one protecting Montana ratepayers from any increased costs resulting from the deal. It also specified that CenturyLink must honor Qwest’s commitment to provide high speed Internet access to West Glacier by April, 2012 – so whether the deal goes through or not, West Glacier residents should be able to move off of dial-up access by then.

While the hearing was mostly positive, it was not immune from electoral politics. Toole, a Democrat, is locked in a tough reelection battle with Republican Bill Gallagher, where Toole has made an issue of Gallagher’s partial ownership of a small Helena-area water utility and related Nevada entity. Toole says Gallagher’s ownership of the utility makes him less likely to take the side of the consumer when making decisions on the PSC.

Last week, Gallagher fired back, saying some mutual funds Toole has invested in own stocks in companies regulated by the PSC, like Qwest. At the hearing, Sandy Welch, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for House District 3, asked Toole how he would rule on the merger given his “holdings in Qwest.”

Toole explained he has mutual funds in his retirement savings, and that was where the reference to his interest in Qwest came from, and pointed to a complaint he had filed against Qwest that led to a multi-million dollar rate reduction for the company. He added that he has asked for a ruling from the state Commissioner of Political Practices on whether mutual funds can constitute a conflict of interest for an officeholder.

“We did digress into politics and I apologize for that,” Toole said.
 
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