House panel passes broadband “dig once” bill

The bill would eliminate barriers to connecting Montana, sponsor says

Fiber optic cable (Photo by Pixabay, Creative Commons)

A House panel on Wednesday signed off on legislation Wednesday to facilitate broadband development in rural Montana by taking advantage of existing infrastructure projects, one of several proposals from lawmakers in both parties and the governor to bolster internet access in the state.

House Bill 494, dubbed the “dig once” bill, directs the Montana Department of Transportation to notify broadband companies when the state is making plans for highway construction or repairs and encourage them to install fiber while roads are already dug up and utility lines are accessible.

This would help to defray one of the principle costs of creating broadband connectivity, said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Derek Harvey, digging.

“Up to 90 percent of the costs of laying fiber are strictly wrapped around the excavation of the ditch,” said Harvey, D-Butte. “My bill would require MDT to simply reach out to telecoms companies when they are engaging in state road construction projects and give the companies an opportunity to lay fiber or conduit while the ditch is already dug.”

Montana is one of the least connected states in the country, especially in rural and tribal communities. The disparity in rural and urban connectivity has become especially apparent during the pandemic, when many students and workers have taken their daily life online.

“I’d really like to stress that I feel that broadband isn’t just a luxury nowadays, it’s a necessity,” said Harvey. “Our students, especially in rural parts of the state, don’t get the best quality education because of this barrier.”
Harvey’s bill received support from labor organizations and a small Helena-based internet service provider called Treasure State Internet and Telegraph. The bill passed Wednesday evening on a unanimous voice vote — a positive sign for any bill, especially one that originated in the minority party.
“We would like to see connectivity happen,” said Kevin Hamm, Treasure State’s CEO. “It would be great to throw down conduit at the time when they already have street dug up.”
An initial fiscal note on the bill said that the notification system would require an additional full-time employee at the Department of Transportation.
But Rob Stapley, the department’s right of way bureau chief, said MDT had already requested an additional employee to help implement existing federal legislation promoting broadband development, the MOBILE NOW Act. As such, he said he doesn’t see the need for an additional employee to carry out the provisions of HB494.
Promoting broadband connectivity is one of a handful of priorities on which lawmakers in both parties tend to find common ground.
The Senate has already given approval to Sen. Jason Ellsworth’s SB51, which gives a tax break to companies installing fiber. Earlier this week, a House panel heard HB422, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Kortum, D-Bozeman. That bill would allow city and towns to own and operate broadband systems, something they can’t do under current law.
“A reliable internet connection brings investments and opportunities to our state,” Harvey said. “We know that access to broadband is a game changer in rural Montana and to our tribal communities.”