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Expanding High-Speed Internet Access for Rural Schools

West Valley School one of two Montana schools to receive state match funds to upgrade broadband connectivity

The issue of limited high-speed internet in rural areas has gained prominence in national political discussions, with President Donald Trump pledging to commit funds to expanding rural broadband access, while on a local level, startup Velocity Communications is now providing LTE cellular wireless internet service with the stated mission of helping fill those gaps.

School officials have also been vocal about the impact of broadband deficiencies on rural education, and during the last state legislative session, the passage of House Bill 390 directed $2 million toward forming a program called Broadband for Montana Schools. The money provides state match dollars to leverage broadband funds available through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) E-rate program.

This week, two Montana schools were awarded state match funds through the Broadband for Montana Schools program, with assistance from the national nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, to upgrade broadband capabilities and increase internet speeds: Belfry K-12 Schools and West Valley School near Kalispell.

In a press release, the Montana Department of Commerce noted that the collaborative efforts and funding have made improved broadband connectivity “a reality for more Montana schools.” Mark Wilson, West Valley’s technology director, praised the teamwork in addressing an important issue.

“It couldn’t have worked out any better for us,” Wilson said. “All of the support was there. Our E-rate consultant assisted in filing the E-rate paperwork, EducationSuperHighway kept us coordinated on next steps, and the state matching fund helped pay for the cost of the upgrade.”

The state Department of Commerce says West Valley School has completed a project to construct a lit fiber network, increasing internet speeds to 100 megabits per second. According to the commerce department, the school will now pay “half as much for more than four times the bandwidth, improving access to 21st century learning tools and reliability for students.”

“Reliable high-speed internet access is a critical part of growing Montana’s economy,” Montana Department of Commerce Director Pam Haxby-Cote said. “Our schools are often the center of our communities, and this funding will go a long way in boosting broadband access for public schools and in turn our communities.”

When Gov. Steve Bullock signed House Bill 390 into law last June, he said it would bring Montana “closer to closing the (broadband) connectivity gap in our state’s schools.”

“Providing our students with access to high-quality digital learning helps set them up for success in our increasingly digital world,” the governor said. “As a predominantly rural state, we need to work even harder to make sure that our students have the high-speed internet that they need to flourish.”

Meanwhile, also last week, the FCC announced that nearly 7,000 rural homes and businesses in Montana currently without high-speed internet access could get connectivity “in the near future.”

The FCC noted that these homes and businesses are eligible for financial support from the next phase of the commission’s Connect America Fund, which helps offset the high cost of extending broadband service into rural areas. The funds will be distributed through a “reverse auction,” in which service providers compete for available dollars.

The auction is scheduled to launch on July 24. The application period for providers seeking to participate in the auction runs from March 19-30.

The FCC identified 828 homes and businesses in Flathead County as potentially eligible for the auction’s funds.

“Connecting the unconnected in rural America is my top priority,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement. “I’m excited that our CAF auction will provide opportunities for innovative companies and cooperatives to bridge the digital divide for the Montana consumers and small businesses that lack high-speed access today.”

For more information about the Broadband for Montana Schools program, including how to apply, visit www.comdev.mt.gov/Programs/BROADBAND. For more information about the FCC’s Connect America Fund Phase II auction, visit www.fcc.gov/connect-america-fund-phase-ii-auction.

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