46 THE POWER OF POSSIBILITY NISC | 50 YEARS OF INNOVATION AND MEMBER SERVICE MAKING A CONNECTION: CELL SERVICE IN RURAL AMERICA If you look at a map of cell phone coverage, you’ll see a big white blotch in the middle of Idaho. There’s no service in the remote mountainous area — but you can receive a 4G connection along the Salmon River in central Idaho, thanks to Custer Telephone Cooperative in Challis. Telecommunications cooperatives and other independent telecom companies bring much-needed connections to rural America, and NISC has provided the technology partnership to make it happen. For Custer, the cellular story began in 1998. “Nobody wanted to provide it here because they couldn’t find an economic model that would work,” says Dennis Thornock, CEO and General Manager. “We were a cooperative so we wanted to provide the service [to meet members’ needs], but not necessarily make a lot of money on it.” Thornock looked into the status of the cellular spectrum, the frequencies available for cell phone communication, and challenged the spectrum owner at the Federal Communica- tions Commission because it had never been built out. Custer gained control of the spectrum, partnered with a national cellular carrier and began building cell towers. Fewer than 1,000 area residents purchase Custer’s cell service, but the co-op also provides service to thousands of visitors who come to explore the nearby wilderness. To enable the new cell service, NISC created software to track and measure the calls, texts and data. NISC also helped streamline the process of producing FCC reports. “They were adaptive, nimble and did what they could to make it affordable for a wireless model,” says Thornock. Nemont Telephone in Scobey, Montana, acquired cellular spectrum in the mid-1990s, and today, with more than 100 cell towers and other sites, it provides connectivity in its territory of 12,000 square miles in northeast Montana. Cell service helps enable “precision agriculture,” which could include wireless cameras in calving barns and GPS devices on farm equipment, says CEO Mike Kilgore. “There’s no Sprint, there’s no T-Mobile [here],” says Kilgore. “Those folks are not building out towers like we have in rural America, and they never have.” Nemont partners with Verizon to offer 4G service and with NISC to enable the billing and other back-office infrastructure. Unlike the megacor- porations that long ignored rural areas, Nemont and NISC share the mission of putting the Member-Customer first. “The reason your Verizon phone works here is not because of Verizon but because of this little co-op that thought it could,” says Kilgore. Nemont Telephone in Scobey, Montana, provides a mobile store to serve remote areas of their service territory.