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Gianforte admin proposing $350M broadband expansion plan

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Posted at 5:02 PM, Mar 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-17 19:52:54-04

HELENA — The Gianforte administration Wednesday proposed spending $350 million of federal money over the next four years to expand and enhance high-speed Internet in Montana – and said that still wouldn’t meet the needs in the entire state.

If Montana doesn’t modernize its Internet infrastructure, it won’t be able to compete for businesses of the future, which will rely more and more on higher speeds of electronic data transfer, said Commerce Director Scott Osterman.

“We’ve got to create an infrastructure that lets people look at it and go, `'Wow, look at that – they’ve got a huge broadband network deployed,’” he told a legislative budget panel. “And we can put our 15 or 20 people, or 50 or 100, or whatever it might be, and know that we can connect to the rest of the world and do business commercially.”

Osterman also said the administration wants to create a task force, within the department, that would decide where and how to spend the money.

Osterman spoke Wednesday before a joint appropriations subcommittee, which will help draft a bill to spend parts of the nearly $3 billion Montana is expected to get from the federal Covid-19 relief bill passed last week.

While $350 million is a huge chunk of cash for broadband infrastructure, Osterman estimated it would take twice that amount -- $700 million – to give the entire state access to modernized Internet speeds that can support businesses and consumers.

Federal law and guidelines are dictating how much of the state’s share of federal Covid-19 money must be spent in Montana. But at least $910 million of the money is discretionary funds that the Legislature can spend pretty much how it chooses.

State lawmakers from both political parties are proposing varying structures to manage and spend the money for broadband expansion.

Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, has Senate Bill 297, which likely will create the task force and set out parameters for how broadband companies would get the money.

Democratic lawmakers also are preparing bills to create a revolving broadband loan fund and state “broadband manager” within the Department of Commerce, similar to a position described by Osterman.

Osterman said it’s important for Montana to create a broadband infrastructure that will last into the future, able to handle data speeds that may be much faster than is currently acceptable.

He noted that Internet speeds have increased 12,000 percent just in the past decade.

“If we think that one gigabyte per second is good now, just look at how far we’ve come in the last decade,” Osterman said. “We don’t know how fast the speed may be.”