Over the last year, the pandemic has opened our eyes to the reality that high-speed internet is essential for Montanans across the state. The pandemic also reminds us of the painful truth that Montana ranks 50th in the nation when it comes to this vital service.
Since the pandemic began, we’ve learned that telehealth services – which are now available through high-speed internet – can improve health outcomes by helping families with online access to healthcare specialists and other providers. With this technology, patients are often able to receive state-of-the-art health care in their own homes. AARP Montana appreciates the Legislature’s support for expanding access to telehealth services through the passage of House Bill 43, which is sponsored by Rep. Rhonda Knudsen of Culbertson. We also urge the Montana House to pass Senate Bill 357, which is sponsored by Sen. Jenn Gross of Billings. Both bills make telehealth more accessible to all Montanans.
Now we need to build-out our broadband infrastructure across the state. Montana’s farmers and ranchers need high-speed internet to be successful and competitive, both now and in the future. The American Farm Bureau Federation says, “Farmers and ranchers depend on broadband – just as they do highways, railways and waterways.”
Local Montana businesses can expand their customer base and sales using high-speed internet. Numerous studies have shown that having high-speed internet access contributes to economic growth and business investment. This crucial service is especially needed in rural and remote communities, where it aids in job creation.
For seniors in Montana, high-speed internet access helps combat loneliness by making it easier to stay connected to friends and family. Social isolation is a serious public health issue that places older Montanans at higher risk of failing health and early death.
We thank the legislators who are working to expand access to broadband this legislative session. There have been several bills introduced by legislators from both sides of the aisle, with potential solutions. We also appreciate Gov. Greg Gianforte’s expertise and vision to fully build-out Montana’s broadband infrastructure.
Finally, one of the most promising broadband bills is Senate Bill 297 – “The ConnectMT Act – To establish broadband deployment,” sponsored by Senator Jason Ellsworth of Hamilton. We urge Montana lawmakers to fully fund Senate Bill 297 by tapping into the federal money available through the American Rescue Plan Act to expand broadband infrastructure and access throughout Montana.
Without a doubt, improving access to high-speed internet was necessary before the pandemic. Since COVID-19 hit, the “digital divide” that adversely affects Montana has only become more apparent. Now is the time to make sure that all Montanans have access to broadband. Access to high-speed internet service will improve our quality of life and expand opportunities for residents, no matter where they may live in this vast and remarkable state.
Mike Batista is the director of government affairs at AARP Montana.
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