Kalispell startup Velocity Communications is Flathead’s first LTE cellular wireless internet provider, focusing on rural areas that lack reliable high-speed options.

[Original Story]

Outlying rural areas beyond city limits at times lack reliable, fast internet service, a void that a new startup is working to fill in Flathead County — and eventually elsewhere in Montana and beyond — by offering wireless internet service that utilizes the same technology and private radio waves as cellphones.

Owners Juan Rivera-Strandberg and Tyler Ament say their Kalispell-based Velocity Communications is the area’s first company to provide LTE cellular wireless internet service for homes and businesses, as opposed to other options such as dial-up, DSL, cable or satellite. Other local providers are also moving into wireless realms as ancillary endeavors to their primary services, but Velocity is the first of its kind.

Ament and Rivera-Strandberg say wireless internet will be far more prevalent in the U.S. in the coming years and is already widely used in some countries. They hope to establish a permanent foothold in this shifting market, ahead of the curve in Montana, guided by on-the-ground knowledge and understanding of local needs and preferences.

“This is the future,” Ament said. “When 5G rolls out, you’ll see a lot more of this.”

Velocity has been conducting a slow roll-out, offering services in the areas of Columbia Falls, Batavia, Kila and into west Kalispell. Ament and Rivera-Strandberg have also been running a beta program that allows them to finalize network modifications and iron out kinks by providing unbilled internet service to participating customers in exchange for those customers agreeing to let Velocity perform any necessary work and testing. As the beta program winds down, Velocity plans to continue expanding its services throughout the valley.

The company’s emergence comes at a time when rural broadband deficiencies are gaining national attention. President Donald Trump has vowed to prioritize the expansion of rural broadband services in his infrastructure package, and he was slated to give a speech on Jan. 8 to the American Farm Bureau Federation reaffirming that commitment.

Velocity is the brainchild of Rivera-Strandberg, who spent years putting his vision into motion before finding a partner in Ament last year. The two men met through Montana West Economic Development, which has helped the company get on its feet. They both say they greatly appreciate MWED’s assistance and expertise, particularly that of Kim Morisaki, the organization’s business development and special project director.

“Kim has been awesome,” Ament said.

The company’s formation from genesis to launch took years, requiring numerous layers of work and planning, ranging from tasks typical of any business development to challenges specific to their effort, including network and infrastructure, licensing and compliance with the Federal Communications Commission, and more. Both owners have backgrounds in technology and are able to conduct technical work on their own.

“There was a lot of strategy and work that went into getting this going,” Rivera-Strandberg said.

Velocity’s service is akin to a constant hotspot in people’s houses and businesses, but with unlimited data and a fixed affordable monthly rate. Residential plans are $49 a month for 30 Mbps download speed, and Rivera-Strandberg says a customer’s bill will never go up, incrementally or otherwise, no matter how much data is used. The four cellular giants — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile — offer wireless internet packages, although with limited data.

Ament says the basic rule of thumb is if people are somewhere with cellphone reception, they can get Velocity’s high-speed service, which the company has dubbed “TrueQuality” internet. It doesn’t require hardware installation in, on, around or leading up to houses and businesses.

“It’s like having access to the fastlane during rush-hour gridlock,” the company states on its website. “Your connection is prioritized and quality-controlled instead of let loose in the public wireless free-for-all.”

Paul Wickey, a beta program customer, is building a home west of Kalispell in a rural area that he says has traditionally lacked a good high-speed internet option. Since contacting Velocity upon receiving the company’s flyer in the mail, he has been a satisfied customer even though he lives in a camper while he’s building his house and is on the outer edge of cell phone range. All he had do was plug a router into an outlet.

Not only has Wickey been able to run multiple devices and stream videos without buffering issues, all without data constraints, he particularly appreciates that Velocity is truly local, even its customer service.

“The speeds are a lot better and they have awesome customer service — and they’re local, which is even more awesome,” Wickey said. “It nice to have a real local person you’re talking to that knows the area.”

Beyond his individual needs, Wickey said he’s excited about the big picture.

“I’m very excited for this opportunity in the valley for people who live on the edges of the valley and even beyond,” he said. “I think this is going to be very good for rural customers in our area.”

In addition to reaching residential customers, Rivera-Strandberg and Ament say their services will boost business possibilities in rural areas. The modern digital world has dramatically expanded the ability to work remotely from home, but that’s contingent on having high-speed internet. Velocity offers a business plan with a download speed of 100 Mbps.

Brent Johnson, project manager for Compass Construction, uses Velocity internet in a job trailer and for a security camera system at a worksite in Columbia Falls. Without having to run wires or install hardware, Johnson is able to conduct business on the job and then keep an eye on a live stream of the site when he leaves, which is welcome peace of mind after items went missing prior to the security system’s setup.

“It’s been great so far,” Johnson said. “Great customer service — (Ament) has stopped in a few times to make sure we’re happy.”

While Rivera-Strandberg and Ament have ambitions to continue expanding, they want to do so steadily and within their means, at a pace that doesn’t sacrifice performance or customer service. And, as a matter of philosophy, they’ll never stop seeking opportunities for innovation and improvement.

“For us, it’s about pushing the envelope, number one,” Rivera-Strandberg said. “Number two, it’s about setting a new bar for internet here.”