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Montana to apply for almost $7M as federal government approves "Digital Opportunity Plan"

Broadband Cable Installation
Posted at 6:40 AM, Apr 05, 2024

HELENA — Montana has already awarded more than $300 million in federal funding to support new broadband infrastructure across the state, and they’re set to receive almost $629 million more to continue making sure every part of Montana gets high-speed internet service. Now, though, the state also has an opportunity to seek funding for other ways to close “digital gaps.”

“If you build fiber in the ground and folks can't actually have the tools around it to access that broadband, then what have you really done?” asked Misty Ann Giles, director of the Montana Department of Administration.

DOA oversees the Montana Broadband Office, which has played a big role in receiving and distributing funds, as the federal government made enormous investments in broadband development.

Last week, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration approved the office’s “Digital Opportunity Plan,” which lays out principles for programs that go beyond hard infrastructure to help Montanans access not only internet service, but digital devices and the skills needed to get the most out of them.

Each state has created a plan, with a focus on groups that face extra barriers to high-speed internet. Montana’s plan says more than 80% of people in the state fit into one of those covered groups, including residents of rural areas, older people, veterans and tribal members.

With the plan approved, NTIA announced that Montana is eligible to apply for $6.9 million to put it into action. That allocation was based on its population, the size of covered groups and the relative lack of broadband access as compared to other states.

Giles says they plan to apply for the full $6.9 million, and they’ll now have to put together detailed proposals on how they would use the money.

“We're working with our community anchor institutions – that's a big thing we hear from hospitals, that they don't have just even proper wiring,” she said. “Telehealth and access to services across the state is obviously a huge issue; lack of devices and hotspots in areas like libraries, fire stations, things like that; workforce development, online training.”

Giles says they plan to present their concepts for using the digital opportunity funding to the state Communications Advisory Commission at a meeting May 7. They hope to get the commission to sign off so they can submit the final plan to federal authorities by the May 28 deadline.

The funding for this program came from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed by Congress in 2021. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester was among the bipartisan group that negotiated the bill, and he was the only member of Montana’s congressional delegation to vote in favor of it.

“High speed internet can be a game-changer for folks across Montana, from making it easier to access online doctor appointments to building small businesses,” said Tester in a statement. “I’m proud to have secured this funding from my bipartisan infrastructure law to help Montana’s working families and small businesses compete in the 21st century, and I will continue fighting to improve internet access for all Montanans.”

While the state works on their digital opportunity planning, they’re also hoping to receive approval soon to begin taking grant applications for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, or BEAD – the program that will provide the almost $629 million for further broadband infrastructure.

BEAD is specifically intended to get high-speed internet to every location in the state that’s unserved – meaning they either have no broadband service or service with download speeds far below the benchmark. Giles said, because of the high costs of building fiber in some geographically challenging areas, the state is looking at fixed wireless solutions for less than 1% of Montanans.

Giles said they hope to receive approval for their initial proposal in the next 30 to 45 days, and to start taking applications by the summer.

“We've got a lot of work to do, but we're excited that hopefully we can get approval here soon and get to work,” she said.