With the Montana Public Service Commission releasing its legal notice of Siyeh Development Corporation’s intention to purchase the 338 exchange from 3 Rivers Communications, 3 Rivers General Manager and CEO Dave Gibson emphasized how long the process might take and how tentative the details are at present.
“We never talked about changing things in Browning,” he said. “It’s a long and arduous process that we’ve been under the last three years. The Tribe needed money, and that didn’t happen until two weeks ago, so it’s not real until it happens. Right now it’s coming at us like a tidal wave.”
Asked about members’ accumulated Capital Credits, Gibson said it is “typical” for telephone cooperatives to take an average of 17 years to pay out an ex-member’s account. “Our default is when a member becomes inactive, they retain their Capital Credits, and they are paid out in the usual way. But the board has not made a decision. They’ve expressed a willingness to consider a buyout, but they’ve made no decision and there will be none for several months.”
Siyeh poised to buy ‘338’ exchange from 3 Rivers
“It just came in recently and I haven’t spent a lot of time studying it,” Mike Dalton, Rate Analyst for the Montana Public Service Commission, said of a legal notice appearing in this week’s issue of the Glacier Reporter. The notice sets the stage for 3 Rivers Communications to sell its assets in the 338- exchange to Siyeh Development Corp., thereby ending those customers’ membership in the cooperative.
“Right now, 3 Rivers provides service on the Reservation, and they are the Eligible Telecommunications Carrier for that area,” Dalton said. “ETCs are eligible for federal subsidies for telephone and broadband services, and there can be only one ETC in any area. 3 Rivers is the ETC for this area and other areas. 3 Rivers will sell their assets to Siyeh, and after that Siyeh will apply for an ETC designation from the FCC [Federal Communications Commission], so the two companies are asking the Commissioners to approve the sale pending approval from the FCC.”
If approved as an ETC, Siyeh would then become eligible for federal funding for telephone and broadband on the Blackfeet Reservation.
Speaking as an individual, not for 3 Rivers, board member Harry Barnes reflected on the process leading up to the proposed sale. “I was aware of it, being on the board, and I was against it at first, but eventually I came around,” he said.
Normally, Barnes said if a cooperative sells off a part of its organization, it comes to a vote of the membership. “Two years ago Siyeh lobbied the Legislature and used the Indian Caucus. I was Chairman of the Tribe so I couldn’t vote on the 3 Rivers board, and…I couldn’t talk about it. I was opposed to changing the law because I felt the members should vote, but it was changed. I’m resigned to its being sold.”
The process, Barnes said, took around five years. Siyeh made an offer to 3 Rivers, “but it was still up to the Tribe to get the money,” Barnes said. “They got a letter of guarantee from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) that was enough for First Interstate to loan them the money.”
One of Barnes’ primary concerns is the matter of Capital Credits earned by 3 Rivers members. As a member you get Capital Credits which are part of your monthly bill, and that money is accumulated over the years by 3 Rivers. Every March at their annual meeting 3 Rivers distributes checks to the members that return them a portion of their Capital Credits.
If a member quits the cooperative, Barnes said, 3 Rivers pays them their accumulated Capital Credits over a period of years until they’re gone.
“For me, it would take 20 years to get all mine paid out through the normal process,” he said, “and that’s not right. These members didn’t ask to leave; they were kicked out. It wasn’t voluntary. The company is supposed to be the guardians, but the members had no choice. I think they should get it all…Everyone with 338 and internet only, they’re all owed money because of the Capital Credits.”
Rate Analyst Dalton notes folks affected by the proposed sale can register their opinions on the topic by submitting their comments at the Public Service Commission website - http://psc.mt.gov/. Folks should always include the Docket number assure their comments are tallied, in this case it is Docket No. 2019.12.104.
While this issue is of direct importance to residents of Blackfeet Country, Mike Dalton noted the importance of hearing from “boots on the ground” about issues that may be less well known at the PSC.
“Whether supporting or otherwise, we would love to hear from them,” Dalton said.