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Fiber-optic network spurs telecom price war
Powell residents Marlitt Halstead, from left, Mike Sterling and Ken Witzeling chat with TCT President Chris Davidson about the pricing and features of his company's telecommunications services on a newly launched fiber-optic network. Davidson said Friday during an open house that Powellink faces aggressive pricing from large regional competitors.

POWELL - Though Powellink was completed just days ago and has only a few dozen customers hooked up, the new city-owned telecommunications network has sparked a price war that is likely to reduce phone, TV and Internet bills across town.

Nearly three years after agreeing to provide telecommunications services on the network, TCT has begun serving customers and has an installation waiting list that already stretches into April.

As work on the system neared completion, customer inquiries started rolling in, said Chris Davidson, general manager for TCT.

"As soon as people found out we were done, we just got bombarded with calls," he said.

Davidson and others from TCT held an open house Friday morning to answer questions from potential customers.

Some were signing up for service on the network, which will offer high-speed Internet, phone and high-definition TV. Others were shopping prices and features in what has suddenly become Wyoming's most competitive telecommunications market.

Regional heavyweights Qwest and Bresnan Communications are both offering local specials for Powell residents in response to the launch of Powellink, a privately funded network that will be owned by the city after 20 years.

During its development, both companies opposed Powellink, calling it anti-competitive.

"I'm here to compare quality and prices," said Jim Vogt, president of the Northwest College Board of Trustees.

Vogt, who uses a local Internet service provider and subscribes to Bresnan cable TV, is studying whether high-definition television is worth the money.

"There's not a whole lot of programming out there for it," he said.

Others at the open house said that it isn't easy to compare prices and services across different systems.

Inquiries made by The Gazette to customer service call centers for Qwest, Bresnan and TCT showed all three companies offering Powell customers special rates compared with those

paid by their customers in

nearby markets.

Bresnan offered a "triple-play" package of phone, Internet and basic TV service for $79, and company spokesman Shawn Beqaj said that recently advertised local specials start at $70.

Partnering with satellite TV provider DirecTV, Qwest offered a similar package for $88 for the first three months, then $113 per month afterward.

TCT offered a triple-play package for $76 a month, and Davidson added that the company charged no installation fee and required no long-term contract.

"If customers don't like our deal, they can drop it and walk away with no penalty," he said.

Deals from Qwest and Bresnan required at least a one-year contract and were generally reserved for new customers, although Beqaj said existing customers throughout the Powell franchise area were eligible for the lowest prices.

"It's a furtherance of an introductory price we've offered in other places where we anticipate stiff competition," Beqaj said, although he did not disclose where similar deals have been advertised.

Speed, spirit

Bresnan offers video on demand and digital-video-recorder services that set the company apart from competitors, Beqaj said, adding that the company's premium-tier 15 megabit-per-second Internet download speeds were "the fastest available" in the market.

TCT and DirecTV both offer digital-video-recorder services.

TCT offers premium-tier download speeds of 20 Mbps, and Davidson said the company will offer download speeds of up to 100 Mbps at negotiated rates. Standard download speeds start at 10 Mbps.

TCT representatives said that upload speeds on Powellink, which start at 5 Mbps and range to 20 Mbps and above, are far faster than with competitors.

Qwest's package featured 7 Mbps downloads and 1 Mbps uploads, while Bresnan offered 8Mbps downloads with uploads of less than 1 Mbps. For an additional $10 per month, Bresnan offered 15 Mbps downloads with 1 Mbps uploads.

All three companies offered telephone and TV service bundles with a wide array of features and options that made it difficult to make direct comparisons.

For retired pharmacist Ken Witzeling, who was chatting with Davidson at Friday's open house, price and features weren't the only factors driving his decision to sign up with TCT.

"I am just thrilled with the idea of having fiber in Powell, and I think everybody ought to support it, because it's a distinct advantage for the town," said Witzeling, who helped start The Merc, Powell's community-owned clothing store.

Powellink backers are hoping that the network will benefit from some of the same local spirit that helped make The Merc a success and eventually a model for other cooperatively owned apparel and general merchandise stores.

"I'm confident that even predatory pricing is not going to make up for lack of customer service," Davidson said, adding that money brought in by Powellink will grow into an important municipal revenue stream for Powell.

"People in Powell like that," he said. "It's a pretty cooperative town."

Contact Ruffin Prevost at rprevost@billingsgazette.com or 307-527-7250.

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