Fairfield-based 3 Rivers Telephone Cooperative will begin laying fiber optic cable along county roads in the Choteau and Fairfield rural telephone exchanges this spring.
Company Chief Executive Officer David Gibson, in a recent interview, said the $8 million project outside the city of Choteau and the $1.5 million project east of U.S Highway 89 outside of the town of Fairfield will upgrade the existing copper telephone lines to fiber optic lines. Once the project is completed in late 2017 or early 2018, 500 rural subscribers will be able to get the latest advances in fiber optic technologies including high speed internet service and television programming along with the existing reliable phone service.
The project is similar to what 3 Rivers has been doing every summer for several years now. Gibson and 3 Rivers engineers held a pre-bid conference on Feb. 15, but contractors for each project will not be chosen for about six weeks. The exact price of each project is not yet known for that reason, Gibson said.
The subscribers living within the city limits of Choteau will not be part of the fiber optic project and the town limits of Fairfield already has fiber optic cables.
“The town of Choteau is in very good shape. We can provide fiber to any business right now,” Gibson said of the telecommunications system within the boundaries of the city. “It is doing everything it needs to do,” he added, with the proviso that anyone who wants fiber to the premises can order it.
The upgrades include the 466-exchange outside of the city north to Bynum, east to Farmington and south and southwest of Choteau. Some subscribers close, but outside the city limits, will not receive fiber yet, Gibson said, because they are close enough to the Choteau switching system. No rate change is contemplated with the upgrades, he added.
The subscribers in the Arrowleaf subdivision, about 40 homes 20 miles west of Choteau, might have to wait until next year, Gibson cautioned, for technical reasons, “but we hope to get it done this year as well,” Gibson said.
As it is, fiber optic cable runs about eight miles up the Teton canyon, but Gibson said he doubts if the ski hill will ever get it because the company cannot justify the cost to run cable up there. Still, every permanent resident up the Teton canyon will have fiber eventually, he said.
The upgrades in the 467-exchange will be done under a different contract. Last summer the east bench on the eastern border of the Fairfield exchange by Interstate 15 was upgraded to fiber. This coming summer, everything in the Fairfield exchange that is east and north of U.S. Highway 89 will be upgraded, 225 houses in all. “Everybody will get whatever broadband they want,” Gibson said.
The work includes installing cable with a vibratory plow to trench along the edge of county roads, buried up to 42 inches deep. The company obtained a “310” streambed disturbance permit to bore under streams, and the state signed off via an environmental assessment to lay cable across state land that abuts the county roads. The company also will bore under the Teton River which is deemed a “navigable waterway” under the state’s jurisdiction and that requires compensation at fair market value.
The contractor will use a horizontal boring machine to enter and exit a minimum of 10 feet from stream banks.
The company will pay the state trust land division a $50 application fee and an unknown amount at fair market value for the easement on .334 acres of state land east of Fairfield. The company will also pay $1,500 for 30 application fees ($50 each) and an unknown amount at fair market value for easements on 30.042 acres of state trust land in the Choteau exchange.
Eventually everyone will get fiber to the home just as everyone got a telephone after 3 Rivers was formed in 1953, Gibson said. Three Rivers now has an estimated 20,000 customers along 19,000 miles of lines spread over a 17,000-square-mile area.
In March 1994, 3 Rivers increased its customer base purchasing 11 U.S. West exchanges including Choteau’s. In early 1996, it received a $15 million loan from the USDA-Rural Economic and Community Development’s Rural Utilities Service and Rural Telephone Bank to place 6,400 miles of fiber optic and copper cable and install digital switching equipment for advanced telecommunications services in 14 counties.
The Choteau upgrade occurred in June 1998 when 3 Rivers installed new copper cable that expanded the system capabilities.
The company received a long-term $70 million telecommunications infrastructure loan in 2011 from the Rural Utilities Service to do the upgrade to fiber. The 2011 loan funded a five-year project to install almost 1,700 miles of buried cable and electronic equipment to upgrade 10 exchanges.
The project money is coming out of 3 Rivers’ general operating capital budget that included the Rural Utilities Service loan that will be paid back by subscribers through the normal course of doing business.
Gibson added that the company plans to pay out capital credits at the March 20 annual meeting in an amount similar to what it has done the last three or four years.
The construction work should begin after May 1 laying the cable next to the county roads. After that is finished later this year, the process of installing cable to individual homes and businesses will occur. Gibson said the company would maintain communication via notices and appointments with subscribers during that project phase.