Blackfoot, schools work to keep valley connected

As businesses and schools closed because of the coronavirus, Blackfoot Communications had to keep up with the new booming demand of people working from home, while Seeley-Swan High School also addressed a lack of computers for their students. Not only did Blackfoot increase broadband for people in the Seeley-Swan Valleys but they also connected students who did not have online access or a laptop at home.

“We are still trying to dig out of loads of work. We only have so many technicians and we are doing our best,” said director of operations Mary Worden. She added, “The biggest thing that we saw was a bigger demand for all of our circuits in the area.”

Blackfoot is a local service provider for Western Montana and Eastern Idaho. Though they work in large cities like Missoula and Bozeman, they also are tasked with providing Internet to rural communities including the Blackfoot Valley north to the Swan Valley.  

Customer operation manager Laura Maedche said every circuit area where Blackfoot operates saw an increase in March but they did not have to add any large-scale infrastructure. Instead, they received a large number of work orders for new Internet receivers and more bandwidth, which is the capacity of the data router can send and receive. 

“We have a limited number of human resources to get these things installed for people and that is where we really ran into stress,” Maedche said. 

Delays occurred as the company tried to address not only the influx of work but doing it safely at customer homes. Despite the increased workload, Blackfoot still managed to work through projects, which included providing free Internet access to all students in the region who didn’t previously have access.

A total of 15 school districts reached out to Blackfoot to request Internet for students and teachers who did not have it at home. In Seeley, 13 households with students who had no previous access to the Internet were given it free through the end of June.

“We just wanted people to be able to wrap things up for the school year and be able to turn things in,” Maedche said. 

SSHS Technology and Library Director Michele Holmes said the school worked to get students electronic devices. Five households originally asked for Missoula County School District laptops through a survey in early March.  

“When we got the word we weren’t coming back [after] spring break it kinda had this huge ripple effect. It was many more than five students asking for computers,” Holmes said.  “It ended up being at least 30 devices checked out to students.”

SSHS Principal Kellen Palmer delivered laptops to houses or met families at the school. Blackfoot then ensured everyone had access. 

Holmes explained that even Palmer was helped out by Blackfoot, as he has no Internet set up in his new home. While it was not a permanent fix, Blackfoot was able to set up a connection and did a similar set up for a teacher in Phillipsburg.

“They rigged line up and down trees and under the road and they made it happen for him,” Holmes said. “That was huge.”

Holmes explained another issue students faced was problems like sharing an Internet connection with their entire family. This could easily bog down everyone’s processing speed in a household.

Maedche said Blackfoot increased bandwidth in Seeley Lake for two months without charge for anyone that wanted to so workers could adjust to the new normal of working from home. The charge for bandwidth will return for users, but the provider looks to add new projects and keep customers connected in the face of the coronavirus.

“Whether it is coronavirus or it is a typical Thursday, we are constantly on the hunt for new types of technology that would increase availability,” Maedche said.

One upgrade would be replacing the current gold cable line with new Internet fiber. Blackfoot is already implementing the technology in rural communities like Thompson Falls, and discussed adding the fiber to Seeley Lake with the implementation of a new sewer system. There is no set timeline yet.


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