By Dillon Tabish, 2-14-13
||Caption: Fred Weber, Troy Waller, Joe Sullivan, Tony Friar and Dan Lee, left to right, are seen in front of two newer MontanaSky fleet vehicles in Kalispell. - Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
Joe Sullivan built his first computer when he was 8. Fred Weber didn’t even see one until he was 30.
Despite their differing backgrounds, the two Kalispell men have helped guide one of the oldest Internet service providers in the state through the advent of the World Wide Web and the dawn of the Digital Age.
MontanaSky has advanced from Weber’s risky startup company founded near Eureka in 1994 to today’s expansive information technology source for Flathead, Lincoln and Lake counties. The Kalispell-based business provides high-speed wireless Internet and a wide range of tech support for businesses and residents.
Since taking over for Weber a year ago as MontanaSky’s wunderkind CEO, Sullivan has been ushering the company’s latest evolutionary step: an expansion of fiber-optic technologies throughout Northwest Montana.
Comprised of hair-like strands of glass, fiber-optic cables can carry an infinite amount of digital information over long distances. The technology has been a catalyst of the Information Age.
MontanaSky is currently finishing a stretch of fiber-optic cable to Libby that will help provide the local hospital with cutting-edge medical imaging and other advancements. The cable is expected to become operational in June, according to Sullivan.
Fiber-optic infrastructure has also been developed locally in the past two years and is providing vast connectivity to schools in Bigfork and Evergreen. To complement the service, MontanaSky has established sections of line that can be dispersed by the company’s Wi-Max tower near Lone Pine State Park, which delivers wireless Internet to customers across the valley.
Nationwide Internet use tripled between 1997 and 2007, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Roughly 62 percent of households reported having Internet access at home in 2007.
“The need for Internet is universal,” Sullivan said. “It’s becoming a utility, just like the SEC regulated that everyone has to have access to power and access to phone lines. I think that’s where it’s going. Everyone will have to have access to the Internet.”
However, the amount of available space for wireless networks is indeed limited, which raises the question, what happens when the airwaves are full?
“A lot of people would say it’s going more and more wireless, but eventually that will be capped. There’s a finite amount of radio spectrum out there,” Sullivan said. “You can only cram so much data into that wireless spectrum. It’s not like fiber, where you have an infinite spectrum of light to keep putting information through. With fiber, the sky’s the limit.”
Weber stumbled across the World Wide Web when it was first dialing up in Montana almost 30 years ago. A Great Falls native, Weber moved to Kalispell in 1972 and spent time working in his family’s trucking business and also owned his own retail music store.
But his hobby was waterskiing. During summer he held a sports camp in Rexford and that’s how he began seeking a new way to advertise boat and equipment sales away from the traditional classified ads in newspapers. This was in 1984, when Apple had just unveiled its groundbreaking invention with a famous commercial during Super Bowl XVIII: the Macintosh computer.
Weber bought his first computer and tried creating a sales publication via fax machine. He found a computer programmer who wrote code for the service and essentially created a Neolithic Craigslist. This went on for 10 years as a side project until Weber heard about the Internet. Lincoln County had installed a dial-up Internet server, but sales projects like Weber’s were prohibited.
A MontanaSky fleet truck is seen in Kalispell. - Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
So he pursued his own Internet server.
Mooseweb launched in 1994 as a site that featured text-only websites run via a dial-up telephone connection.
“When I first opened up, it was scary. It was a risk,” Weber said. “But we never looked back. I just kept going with it. My vision was with the Internet.”
The Internet evolved rather quickly, and MooseWeb followed. Within years, pictures suddenly popped up online. Websites evolved before Weber’s eyes. The opportunities seemed endless. Except for one thing: the connection speed remained a snail’s pace. Weber invested in high capacity bandwidth in 1996, which increased the speed from 56K to three megabytes, a quantum leap at the time.
Mooseweb was renamed MontanaSky, and it became the first locally owned company in Montana to offer high-speed wireless Internet, according to Weber.
In 1998, Weber needed help distributing streaming content to a local radio station, but couldn’t find anyone who could solve the problem. That’s when he was introduced to a Libby teenager with a knack for computer skills. Sullivan, 16, solved the problem over a weekend. Weber hired him immediately.
The two have worked together ever since. MontanaSky has grown across Northwest Montana and now has 32 employees. In October 2011, Weber named Sullivan, 30, his successor as CEO.
Weber remains majority owner and still handles an occasional server call when the need arises. That’s how MontanaSky gained the trust of its customers, Weber said, and that isn’t changing.
As a way to stay even more connected locally, the company is planning on establishing a new wireless tower in Columbia Falls in the near future and some day would like to include Whitefish as well, according to Sullivan.
“We want to be more involved in the community in that regard,” Sullivan said. “MontanaSky has always been very focused on being very local. That’s always been our mindset.”
MontanaSky is based in Kalispell at 1286 Burns Way. For more information call 752-4335 or visit www.montanasky.net
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