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Montana is preparing for the upcoming broadband funding cycle



Helena, Montana — A state advisory panel offered suggestions last year for how to allocate more than $300 million in federal internet funding across Montana. Another commission has now begun making plans for the subsequent phase of government funding, which will have twice as much money available but quite different rules for its application.

The federal government said in June that it had allotted around $629 million to increase Montanans’ access to reliable and affordable high-speed internet service. The funding comes from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, which includes the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment, or BEAD, program.

The BEAD monies were distributed to each state depending on the unserved areas that needed to be connected. One of the biggest per-capita sums in the nation will go to Montana, where each citizen would receive roughly $560.

The American Rescue Plan Act provided the state with broadband cash last year. According to state officials, the money had significantly fewer precise restrictions than the BEAD financing will.

“ARPA just simply said make broadband, deploy it, keep everybody in compliance,” said Montana Department of Administration Director Misty Ann Giles, at a Wednesday meeting of the state’s IIJA Communications Advisory Commission. “As we’ve talked about for months, this could not be more different.”

Every unserved location in the state, which is defined as having either no broadband access or only having service that offers download rates of less than 25 megabits per second, is especially targeted by BEAD financing. Approximately 16% of Montana’s rural areas are underserved, while another 6% are unserved. However, there are thousands of unserved areas in even populated counties like Missoula, Gallatin, Yellowstone, and Gallatin.

Whether the $629 million will be sufficient to connect all these areas is one of the greatest questions state policymakers are asking, according to Giles.

“That is a magic eight ball question, but the answer is yes and no,” she said.

According to Giles, there will not be enough cash to deploy fiber connections to all unserviced regions, thus they will need to consider alternative technologies, such as fixed wireless, to reach some places.

The state commission must now draft a “initial proposal” outlining its strategy for selecting contractors to develop the new broadband infrastructure. The idea must be submitted for government approval by December 30. No genuine BEAD cash will be made accessible to the state until that time.

“There is no cash in the bank,” Giles said. “I think that’s the uniqueness, unlike ARPA when we got those allocations.”

Making sure state and federal authorities have a precise picture of which areas of Montana are unserved or underserved will be one of the first measures.

“It is a constant effort of getting more information and refining,” said Adam Carpenter, the state’s chief data officer.

Giles stated that the state intends to launch a survey tool later this year where citizens would be able to perform a “internet speed test” to evaluate their current service as part of that endeavor. They can send out engineers to conduct more formal testing if they discover regions where several test results indicate poor service quality.

“Engineering going out for one location takes eight hours,” said Giles. “And so while we have engineers on staff and a contract to do that for us, given the sheer size of this state, it’s not practical for us to go on a wild goose chase.”

Leaders claimed that when compared to ARPA, BEAD dramatically tightens the restrictions on how the state can evaluate provider financing applications.

The majority of the work on the commission’s initial recommendation will be completed at sessions in August and September.

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