Montana cable company sold to Nebraska firm 

Fibervision, the Laurel-based cable company that serves about 1,600 Missoula customers in the Rattlesnake area, is being sold to a Nebraska-based consortium.

After 30 years in the cable business, Fibervision’s owners Les and Maggie Hilliard are selling the company to their nephew, Chris.

“We’ve been working on it for some time,” says Les Hilliard. “I want to retire, I’m getting old.”

Chris Hilliard is an owner of USA Companies, a Kearney, Neb.-based business group that operates cable and wireless television ventures in California, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, Washington, and Montana. The company is setting up Cable Montana, LLC to operate the systems in Montana and Washington, according to Jim Murphy, a Billings attorney representing Fibervision.

The amount of the deal is not being disclosed. Those involved say that rates should remain steady and the company’s 20-plus employees will remain in their jobs.

“The new owners have assured everybody that they have jobs going forward and not to worry about that,” Les Hilliard says.

“Will there be changes?” asks Murphy. “Probably coming down the road in a year or so, but they’ll be good ones. In order to compete these days, a cable company will have to provide digital service, Internet, and two-way, in the sense that you’ll be able to click something on your TV screen and order a pizza.”

Fibervision expanded into Texas and the Spokane area at different times, but recently sold its Texas operation to AOL-Time Warner. Being a smaller company, it was sometimes tough to compete with the larger cable and satellite outfits, Les Hilliard says.

“When you can go in there and sign a contract to deliver ESPN to 10 or 11 million subscribers versus the contract that I have to sign for 1,600 in the Rattlesnake, they can get a better price,” he says. Still, he looks back on his three decades in the business as a time of constantly meeting challenges.

“You just work at your job, update, stay on top of everything,” he says. “In the cable business there’s constant upgrade.”

The deal, which is expected to be finalized by the end of July, is now before the Missoula City Council’s Administration and Finance Committee. However, city officials note that their rubber stamp means little because federal regulations supercede local decision-makers. The city used to be able to hold hearings on basic tier rates, but now they have no authority on setting rates at all, says City Attorney Jim Nugent.

“It’s one of those federal things that they set up for window-dressing primarily,” Nugent says. “There’s very little communities can do with respect to cable companies.”

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