HELENA — In the state with some of the slowest broadband speeds in the nation, Montana lawmakers refused this year to pick up where federal stimulus programs are leaving off in funding improvements to the state’s Internet, phone and cable services.
Extending broadband to the roughly 890,000 Montanans who lack standard speeds was a fleeting talking point in the 2015 legislative session, which could become more evident since federal incentives to map the infrastructure dried up in January.
Grants and loans are available to certain companies willing to invest in rural broadband, but Internet speeds, access and pricing show that Montana and other sparsely populated states are struggling to keep up in the Internet era.
“For the most part, there really isn’t a whole lot of money available,” Matt Gorecki, co-founder of the Helena-based startup Treasure State Internet, said Wednesday. “They say that it’s available, but ... the U.S. Department of Agriculture grants for underserved communities are very, very strict and most of Montana doesn’t qualify for those.”
In its most recent report, the Federal Communications Commission ranked Montana as providing the least access to what Chairman Tom Wheeler now considers standard broadband speeds. Other national surveys consistently rank Montana among the bottom three states in terms of broadband speeds and access.
“Here’s the thing about Internet: It’s miserable around here,” Kevin Hamm, chief marketing officer for Treasure State Internet, said. He added that Montana is “like a third world country” in terms of Internet speed, which the small business is trying to change block by block.
Montana’s Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee in March shut down the only proposal to encourage companies to build up the state’s telecommunications framework. It was never discussed during the two weeks of April budget and infrastructure negotiations, according to lawmakers and officials in the closed-door meetings.
Broadband programs created under the 2009 stimulus package have dwindled since 2009, but will officially come to an end this summer.
“It’s not like everything’s going to come to a screeching halt without House Bill 14,” Geoffrey Feiss, general manager of the Montana Telecommunications Association, said in reference to the measure that proposed the state provide matching grants for broadband projects.
Feiss spoke in favor of the bill at its March 16 hearing and contended that broadband is lacking in some areas of the state. But this week, Feiss said he disputes the FCC’s findings.
“I don’t buy it,” Feiss said. “Most people have access to the bandwidth that they need and afford.”
Dan Lloyd, business development specialist for Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, said Montana has significant needs when it comes to implementing broadband services that could make or break businesses and economic sectors in the state.
“It’s an issue that we have fallen behind in and one that we need to have more targeted discussions on,” Lloyd said, adding that the governor’s office plans to watch and see whether small-scale private-public partnerships in metropolitan areas of the state pan out.
Charter Communications and CenturyLink own most of the existing broadband infrastructure in Montana. But with only one million people and fewer potential customers, there’s little profit in laying wires across the nation’s fourth geographically largest state.