Broadband connectivity is about power. Some have it – some do not. Montana is ranked almost dead last in the country for broadband coverage.
Due to that dismal statistic, some state legislators began a discussion in January to create a broadband fund to build out fiber into rural areas of the state. One initial concept would have imposed a tax on certain providers who currently benefit from a unique tax windfall in Montana. The idea was to close that loophole and create a $10 million per year state fund for broadband. But companies who own those providers threatened to kill the bill.
Fortunately, within weeks the U.S. Congress passed COVID-relief legislation to pour billions of federal dollars into the states for everything from unemployment benefits to funding fiber buildout. Montana state legislators quickly converted that early effort into one to create a process to facilitate the expenditure of $275 million in federal funds for broadband connectivity.
It sounds like a lot of money. And yet, as vast and rural as Montana is, it will take every dime of that and more to reach the most rural areas of the state. But it is a good start. During House and Senate consideration, there was a great deal of back and forth between competing interests for and against the legislation to create a new broadband funding office. Consequently, it did not pass until the final hours of the session.
But Montana should be optimistic. For the first time, small and mid-size companies are poised to compete for funding to build out fiber to forever-underserved rural areas of the state. This time it is not just the same, decades-old, former monopoly companies locking up still more federal dollars – whose failures over decades have relegated the state to one of the lowest ranked in the country. This time several more nimble entrepreneurial companies will have an equal chance to apply to build out fiber to rural Montana.
Sen. Jason Ellsworth of Hamilton took on the challenge of managing this bipartisan legislation through the State Senate and House. It was a tough exercise in legislative drafting, debate, compromise, and committee wrangling. But he faced down the hard questions from a complex communications marketplace and got it through the process. Gov. Greg Gianforte, who made broadband a cornerstone of his campaign last year, signed the bill into law on May 11. The executive branch in Helena must now stand up the new office called for in the bill and implement that legislation.
Congratulations to the Legislature for making the tough choices and hammering out a fair bill, which may just put Montana in a respectable position on the national broadband map for the first time in history.
Roger Fleming is a Montana attorney and was previously a counsel on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee in Congress where he worked on telecommunications issues.
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