Montana gets another $90 million in Internet stimulus grants

2010-08-04T14:28:00Z 2010-08-06T18:03:19Z Montana gets another $90 million in Internet stimulus grantsMIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
August 04, 2010 2:28 pm  • 

HELENA — Another $90 million in federal stimulus funding to expand high-speed Internet service is coming Montana’s way, to fund projects on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and in Gallatin County, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Wednesday.

The Montana grants and loans were among 126 project awards unveiled nationwide, as part of the Obama Administration’s $7 billion program to expand high-speed Internet into unserved and underserved areas.

“The broadband projects announced today will give rural Americans access to the tools they need to attract new businesses, jobs, health care and educational opportunities,” Vilsack said at a Washington, D.C., news conference. “These projects will create jobs building these networks, and the completed systems will provide a platform for rural economic growth for years to come.”

The two Montana projects announced Wednesday are in addition to a pair of projects awarded last month, increasing to $111 million the total of broadband stimulus-money grants and loans in the state.

The two new Montana awards are:

n $64 million for Montana Opticom to install fiber-optic lines to homes and businesses in northwestern Gallatin County, serving more than 18,500 people and 4,000 businesses. Half of the award is a grant; the other half is a loan.

The expansion will bring faster, more consistent high-speed Internet to Manhattan, Belgrade and rural areas stretching south to Gallatin Gateway, project managers said.

n $26 million for Nemont Telephone Cooperative to improve and expand Internet service on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeast Montana.

High-speed fiber will be installed to all homes and businesses in Frazer, Brockton, North Poplar, North Wolf Point and rural Froid. The package includes a $2.6 million loan.

Both projects are expected to take three years to complete. The federal government will be financing construction of the new broadband networks, but customers in the project areas will have to pay the cost of monthly service they choose to buy.

Last month, Nemont’s subsidiary, Project Telephone Co., won a $19.5 million grant/loan package to expand high-speed Internet service on the Crow Indian Reservation in southeastern Montana.

“We’re kind of speechless, actually,” said Richard Hood, plant operations manager for Nemont. “We put in three applications and we received all three of them.

“This is huge. It’s going to change the face of Nemont and, more importantly, change the face of the reservations. It’s going to vastly improve the basics for them as far as Internet access.”

High-speed Internet on the two reservations will help create more education and business opportunities as well as telemedicine, Hood said: “We’re definitely excited about it and overwhelmed at the same time.”

Montana Opticom, based in Gallatin Gateway, currently offers fiber-optic Internet, voice and video services in Big Sky.

The $64 million grant and loan will enable the company to build a fiber-optic network that stretches from Manhattan to Belgrade to Gallatin Gateway and up the Gallatin River Valley.

Company spokesman Dean Genge said as the build-out occurs, the company will ask homes and businesses along the route whether they want to buy the service. If so, the company will install the line to the facility free of charge, he said.

Many rural areas along the route have no high-speed Internet service, he said, and the new network will bring broadband to many schools and other public facilities in the project area.

Montana Opticom is a subsidiary of Ascent Data, which is headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pa.

At a Washington, D.C., news conference, Vilsack said an additional $1 billion worth of broadband grants and loans will be announced by September.

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