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Montana will receive nearly $629 million to expand broadband access as part of the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the latest action plan will be presented July 12 to the state Communications Advisory Commission.
In a news release this week, Gov. Greg Gianforte said the money will expand access to “unserved and underserved Montana communities.”
Citing data from the Federal Communications Commission in December, the Governor’s Office noted one in three Montanans don’t have access to broadband, three times the national average. It said three in five people in rural communities lack access.
“Lack of broadband access shouldn’t stand between Montanans and opportunities for a good-paying job, greater education and affordable, high-quality health care,” said Gianforte, a Republican, in a statement this week. “This generational funding will support Montana as we close the digital divide and open the doors to greater opportunities for all Montanans.”
The BEAD Five-Year Action Plan from the Montana Department of Administration said goals for the money are to decrease the percentage of unserved and underserved locations and increase the percentage of residents with access to internet-capable devices. BEAD is the federal Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program.
The action plan notes 13% of Montana locations are unserved, and 5% are underserved. It identifies those baseline figures and others, such as household adoption rate, but lists many goals as “to be determined.”
The Department of Administration did not address the reason the current plan didn’t set targets. However, a spokesperson provided a broadband presentation from earlier this month, which included a requirement that those using the grants will prioritize unserved and underserved locations.
The money for Montana is part of the Biden Administration’s $42.5 billion initiative to connect all Americans to high-speed broadband by the end of the decade. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, has likened the package to FDR’s New Deal and said the investment today is just as critical.
The news release from the Governor’s Office said Montana was notified in December it would receive a $5 million planning grant, and the resulting action plan, informed by months of outreach, was approved this month by the Communications Advisory Commission.
“Access to reliable and affordable broadband in today’s economy is no longer a luxury, but a necessity,” said Department of Administration Director Misty Ann Giles in a statement. “Montana lags behind other states in access to broadband, largely due to our state’s vast size and our beautiful, yet unique topography, making the cost of deployment significantly higher in comparison to other states.”
The DOA said an updated plan will be presented to the Communications Advisory Commission on July 12 prior to submission to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and an updated map is underway.
The recent Department of Administration report on broadband noted Montana is 50th in a recent ranking of high-speed internet availability and 44th in high-speed internet adoption. It also said 5.8% of Montana households have no computing device of any kind.
In an interview this week, Robert McLaughlin, with the National Collaborative for Digital Equity, said digital access is connected to economic opportunity and inclusion and has been for more than a decade.
For example, he said prospective employees looking for jobs that pay a living wage need to be able to apply online, and even jobs bagging groceries are being advertised only online.
“If you can’t go online, economically you’re toast,” McLaughlin said.
He said one reason the federal investment received bipartisan support is because of the impact of broadband connection on rural communities.
McLaughlin said without access, rural entrepreneurship can’t flourish, and there’s a “brain drain of small rural towns.” With it, on the other hand, he said people who are creative “have all kinds of opportunities.”
“Economic vitality requires access to broadband,” he said.
It costs more to take broadband to faraway places; a bird’s eye map of availability in Montana shows some of the most remote and impoverished areas are the least served in the state.
On the ground, bridging the divide poses numerous challenges, McLaughlin said. For example, he said it’s not always easy to map the location of services because some providers don’t want to share information with competitors.
“It is technically and politically and diplomatically difficult,” he said of the mapping challenge.
Also, McLaughlin said just because a state invests in bringing a connection to a location doesn’t mean the cost will be affordable to people who live there.
The presentation about broadband given earlier this month included input from three tribal outreach sessions, and it said tribal leaders reported affordability as the largest barrier to access. They also said “few digital equity programs for tribes exist.”
However, one of the “potential” goals cited in the presentation is that cost not be a barrier to any Montanan, “irrespective of their income level.” It also notes a hope to reduce the digital divide among all Montana residents.
In an email, the DOA noted discounts are available to households that need help through the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program.
“The FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program provides eligible households with a discount of up to $30 per month ($75 on qualifying tribal lands) for high-speed internet service, and up to $100 discount toward a desktop, laptop, or tablet computer offered by participating internet service providers,” the DOA said. “Montanans whose income is 200% or less of the federal poverty guidelines, or those who participate in programs like SNAP, Medicaid or WIC should go to affordableconnectivity.gov to apply.”
In the news release, the Governor’s Office referred to a separate and historic $309 million investment in broadband it had announced in the fall.
However, the Gianforte Administration received criticism from Democrats for handling that money, including for awarding Charter Communications, “an out-of-state corporate telecom giant,” $109 million of it; shorting Montana telecom companies; and, according to a Montana Free Press analysis, distributing most of the money to the state’s eight most populous counties.
“Letting a mega-corporation pick and choose their markets and a cushy $100 million dollar grant is the exact opposite of a competitive economy,” said Sheila Hogan, with the Montana Democratic Party, at the time.
Neither the Governor’s Office nor the Department of Administration responded to a request for comment about how the current federal allocation will be awarded given the concerns raised earlier.
An earlier news release from the Governor’s Office said the $309 million was slated to provide service to more than 60,000 locations, 38,631 in unserved communities, 21,956 in underserved communities, and 1,300 in frontier communities.
The DOA noted a broadband proposal is due this December, and a final due one year later: “While it’s uncertain how long federal approvals will take for each phase that has to be submitted to NTIA, Montana stands ready to move as quickly as possible to deploy these funds and close the digital divide for Montanans.”
Serving the underserved, unserved
- An Eligible Entity must prioritize deploying broadband service to unserved locations.
- Once an Eligible Entity certifies that it will reach all unserved locations in its jurisdiction, the Eligible Entity must next prioritize the provision of broadband to underserved locations.
- To the extent an Eligible Entity has funds left over after allocating funds for unserved and underserved areas, it can then use funds to connect and upgrade community anchor institutions such as libraries and community centers that lack a 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) connection or to pursue eligible access-, adoption-, and equity-related uses, as well as any other uses approved by the Assistant Secretary that support the Program’s goals.
Source: NTIA FAQs
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