Guest Column

Connecting Montana to Opportunity

Montana ranks as the worst state for broadband internet connectivity

By Jason Ellsworth

The world is changing faster than ever before. If we want Montana to continue to be a place where you can make a living and raise a family, we must build the infrastructure we need to seize the opportunities of the modern economy. 

Right now, Montana ranks as the worst state for broadband internet connectivity. That’s a problem we have to fix. Reliable access to high-speed internet doesn’t just matter to high-tech businesses and telecommuters; nearly every piece of our economy depends on it these days. 

Modern farm and transportation equipment are becoming more interconnected online. Telehealth exploded in popularity during the pandemic. Hotels, outfitters, guides, rafting companies, and other tourism and outdoor recreation companies depend on bookings online. 

All industries – from energy and mining and retail to restaurants and real estate and small local businesses – make use of the internet for recruiting employees, managing their books, making sales, and promoting their goods and services. 

So how do we fix the Treasure State’s lacking broadband and connect Montana to the jobs and opportunity of the modern economy? 

On June 8, we had the first meeting of the ARPA Communications Advisory Commission. ARPA refers to the “American Rescue Plan Act,” the massive, fiscally irresponsible spending package from Washington, D.C. While dropping trillions more in stimulus spending was unwise for a federal government already nearly $30 trillion in debt, thanks to responsible budgeting by conservative state lawmakers in Montana, our state is poised to put a big portion of our allocation into a long-term investment. 

Over the coming months, our Commission will use sophisticated mapping and analysis to plan an unprecedented buildout of internet access throughout Montana. We have allocated hundreds of millions of federal monies to this project, but legislation I passed ensures this won’t be a giveaway to large corporations. The private sector is going to have to contribute funding as well, and all providers, large and small, using a variety of technologies, will propose projects and compete for funding. When it’s all said and done, we could be a looking at a total investment of nearly half a billion dollars into Montana broadband Internet. 

The closest parallel in Montana history to this effort is rural electrification in the 1930s and 40s. Internet access today is nearly as critical as electricity for commerce. Heck, when the power goes out, you probably use your phone’s cell connection to check for outage updates. A half-billion-dollar internet buildout is going to be transformative for the future of our state. 

In order to keep Montana the Last Best Place, we have to have an economy that allows people to making a living and raise a family. Legislative Republicans and Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration are leading this undertaking to quite literally connect Montanans to opportunities via the internet. Democratic lawmakers also have a seat at the table and will be working with us. It’s my goal as the chair of the ARPA Communications Commission to deliver this infrastructure in a way that is both well-planned and efficient. 

Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, is the Montana Senate President Pro Tempore and Chair of the ARPA Communications Advisory Commission.

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