Montana Stimulus-Funded Internet Expansion Assailed

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A plan to use federal stimulus money to expand Internet service in rural areas of Montana is being assailed by regulators and telephone companies who believe the effort will essentially simply duplicate high-tech infrastructure already in place.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer has urged the federal government to fully fund a Bresnan Communications application for $70 million to build an 1,885-mile fiber-optic network that links Montana’s seven Indian reservations.

Supporters of the project, including Montana’s Indian tribes, say the new network eventually will provide faster, cheaper high-speed Internet service to many rural areas.

The issue of providing the high-speed Web to remote locations is a challenge in rural states like Montana, which ranked near the bottom in a recent national study of Internet speeds, and supporters believe it’s a key driver of economic development.

“This plays into a much larger economic picture,” said William White Tail Feather, director of economic development for the Fort Peck Tribes in northeastern Montana. He said having high-speed Internet service could help the tribe attract new businesses.

But critics say the proposed line would duplicate long-distance fiber-optic lines that already exist. They say it does not increase critical “last-mile” high-speed lines that go directly to homes and businesses.

“The digital divide that exists in Montana is a ‘last-mile’ problem,” the state Public Services Commission wrote in a letter to the U.S. secretaries of Commerce and Agriculture in opposing the Bresnan proposal. “The concentration of funding for unwarranted Bresnan ‘middle-mile’ infrastructure overbuild leaves minimal to nonexistent resources to address the real digital divide, the ‘last mile.'”

Telephone co-ops and firms took particular issue with the administration’s support letter which said that broadband access is not available on Indian reservations and that even basic telephone service is “scarce.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Mike Kilgore, general manager of Nemont Telephone Cooperative, which serves rural northeastern Montana, including the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. He said Nemont and other companies offer high-speed Internet service to at least a dozen towns on the reservation.

The telephone co-ops also argued that using stimulus money for the Bresnan expansion essentially creates a taxpayer-funded competitor that will take jobs away from established telecom firms.

Rick Stevens, general manager of Triangle Communications in Havre, said the co-op offers high-speed Internet on the Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy’s Indian reservations and plans to upgrade those services with fiber-optic cables directly to homes and businesses in 2011 and 2012.

White Tail Feather countered that Internet service available on the reservations is often high-priced and substandard.

“When they say they’re providing service to us, it’s the most basic service for the highest price,” White Tail Feather said.

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