Flathead Valley: Uncompromised Broadband Capabilities and Quality of Life
Entrepreneurs clearly play a leading role in economic recovery. In his January 19, 2010, “State of Entrepreneurship Address,” Carl Schramm, President and CEO of the Kauffman Foundation, states that “half of today’s Fortune 500 companies were founded in a recession or bear market.” In fact, “In the last thirty years, literally all net job creation in this country has taken place in firms less than five years old.”
Industry growth areas
So, in the midst of this recession, in what industries are entrepreneurs looking to invest? According to entrepreneur.com’s list, bandwidth-reliant industries such as gaming, internet and healthcare technologies, and biotechnologies are poised for growth. That’s good news for the Flathead Valley, located in Northwestern Montana. Through CenturyLink, a leading Fortune 500 communication company with a location in Kalispell, MT, the Flathead Valley offers more fiber optic bandwidth, per capita, than anywhere else in the country. Ninety-six percent of homeowners here have access to 10 Megs of bandwidth, and 90 percent of businesses have Ethernet capabilities piped right to their doors. Area government contractors, credit-card processing companies, and hospitals rely on these capabilities to transmit large data, audio, image, and video files around the clock.
Looking closer at area developments in healthcare but beyond CenturyLink’s service areas, the Health Information Exchange of Montana (HIEM) located in Kalispell, MT, is in the process of developing a fiber optic network across 17,000 square miles of northwest, rural Montana. A $13.6 million grant from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will provide funds for the fiber optic infrastructure; HIEM must raise 15 percent of that in matched funds. Infrastructure aside, HIEM will also integrate patient files from disparate information systems in order to create a single view of each patient’s health. This collection process means transferring and integrating large amounts of data, audio, video over the fiber optic network HIEM is building. As the network allows telehealth services to be provided, files will be transported between large medical centers and rural doctors’ offices and clinics, greatly enhancing the well-being of rural communities whose members rely on quality healthcare.
While HIEM’s fiber optic development project is separate from the CenturyLink’s fiber optic network presently serving Flathead County’s residences, entrepreneurs, and business owners, CenturyLink’s service area has “no limitations whatsoever,” says its GM, Jeremy Ferkin. “Providing ten Gigs of Ethernet here is cheaper, faster, and more reliable when benchmarked against the same capabilities of major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and New York.”
Pioneers in the frontier—the birth of an industry
All this talk of pushing data, audio and video through broadband cheaper, faster, and more reliably became a commercial reality for telephone companies here in January 2006, allowing them to compete with cable companies for the first time. Auroras Entertainment, a Flathead Valley startup, was the first to offer a managed Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) service by aggregating traditional television programming, then applying advanced compression to allow it to travel over narrow broadband (DSL lines), typically the only type of transmission service available in rural areas. Aurorus packaged the programming with encryption and application software, then delivered it by telephone and broadband companies to customers, who view the programming on TV, similar to cable television.
Auroras Entertainment eventually merged with Broadstream Communications to become Avail Media, then acquired TVN Entertainment—the company is now called Avail-TVN and supplies television content to over 50 million households throughout North America. But back in the start-up days, Mike Kazmier, then Auroras’s President and CTO, said he could have pursued the start-up anywhere, but swayed by the natural beauty and quality of life the Flathead Valley offers, he and his then business partner, Diane Smith, chose to bring Auroras to life here. Start-up talent and guidance was sought through and delivered by Liz Marchi, Founder of Frontier Angel Fund and past president and CEO of Montana West Economic Development.
Montana tax structure—business friend or foe?
A state’s tax structure is an important determinant on whether a business sets up shop or relocates here. Points are scored, or not, on how business friendly a state’s tax structure is. Business Facilities Magazine ranked Montana as the 6th most tax-friendly state for businesses, as did the national, non-partisan Tax Foundation www.taxfoundation.org. Some argue these ranking do not realistically reflect the state’s high equipment taxes and worker’s compensation premiums, but the overall combined state and local tax burden is low. Montana has no sales tax, and its Tax Freedom Day—the day Americans have earned enough income to pay for federal, state and local government programs—arrives ten days earlier this year than the national average (April 13th) and 27 days earlier than Connecticut’s, whose workers theoretically have to toil the longest to pay for government programs.
A motivated work force
Flathead Valley workers are ready and willing to be productive.
An October 2008 study conducted by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) at the University of Montana on the quality and quantity of available workers in Flathead County revealed a wide discrepancy between its data and that of the Montana Department of Labor and Industry. Specifically, BBER found far more workers available for work than what labor statistics were showing for three major reasons: workers employed on a part-time basis, out of their field, or in second jobs. All of these workers, the study found, were willing to change jobs—commute a reasonable distances if necessary—for opportunities to work in their field or be trained in specialized fields.
The study also revealed that Internet and computer technology is the specialized field in which the area’s workforce both currently seek and have previously sought training.
A business model that works for the Valley
Many Montanans leave the state to pursue careers, then come back to further their careers while pursuing a high quality of life. These folks have choices—choices propped up by robust, affordable, and reliable broadband technology and the ability to locate anywhere they want. That is why Mike Kazmier returned to Flathead Valley where he has started up two companies, and why he stays as Avail-TVN’s CTO despite his routine travel to company offices located in California and Virginia.
During his start-up years, when Mr. Kazmier had to have access to the right talent at each start-up phase, he sought it both locally and out of state, but was able to create a business model that allowed him to stay here. Other entrepreneurs and business owners who have located here came on the heels of their own commercial success and a desire to continue on that path while immersed in natural beauty.
Businesses and citizens located in Flathead Valley experience, in the words of Jeremy Ferkin, “a quality of life with uncompromised broadband capabilities.” For Mr. Kazmier, that quality of life is delivered without highway congestion, a low cost of living, hardly any employee turnover, and an abundance of natural beauty. His advice to start-ups or businesses owners considering a relocation, “The valley is an asset, not a liability. Come now; while it’s still cheap.”
So check out the landscape here, business and otherwise—look outside your box and into Flathead Valley.