HELENA — A broadband advocacy group will test Internet speeds at Montana public schools this fall to determine places needing faster connections.
State officials announced this week a partnership with EducationSuperHighway aimed at getting schools federal assistance to upgrade broadband infrastructure.
“It’s going to identify where low-hanging fruit exists and where our greatest challenges exist,” Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Dennis Parman said. EducationSuperHighway will then consult administrators on how to receive funding to increase speeds.
The organization says up to 160 K-12 schools lack fiber optic cables that typically correspond with high-speed connections. Federal grants are available to lay the wires or fund other broadband upgrades, but all options require schools to pay at least 10 percent of total costs.
Montana Internet providers say the partnership’s connectivity goals mean little without a commitment of state financial aid.
“If they were to put money behind this proposal, that would show that they really care,” Eric Fulton, co-founder of Treasure State Internet, said.
Montana dedicates no funds specifically for school telecommunications. Office of Public Instruction spokeswoman Emilie Ritter Saunders said there have been no discussions to change that with future legislation.
Public schools and libraries in Montana rely on a massive universal-service grant from the Federal Communications Commission to pay telephone and Internet bills. The E-Rate program, funded by monthly fees on phone bills, provides an annual $3.9 billion for which schools and libraries can apply. About $1 billion of that is dedicated to helping pay for broadband equipment at K-12 and library buildings.
“Even with the E-Rate program, there’s still a cost to the schools,” David Gibson, CEO of 3 Rivers Communications, said. “They’re not going to sign up for something they don’t need.”
Montana is consistently ranked among the bottom three states in terms of broadband access and speeds.
President Barack Obama set a goal in 2013 of connecting 99 percent of America’s students to 1 gigabit of high-speed wireless Internet by 2018.
Montana officials said this week their goal is to provide 1 megabit per student per school district, which vary in size from a few dozen to a few thousand students.
Parman said the state government’s only role in EducationSuperHighway’s project will be promoting it.
Montana schools and libraries have been receiving between $3 million and about $5.5 million from the FCC E-Rate program every year since 2005, according to an Associated Press analysis of data provided by the Universal Service Administrative Company.
They requested more funding from the program this year than ever before. Statewide, Montana asked for $7.6 million and was approved to receive about $4.8 million in 2015.