HELENA — Within the next two months, two federal agencies will decide who receives millions of dollars in federal grants or loans to build new broadband infrastructure to enhance high-speed Internet service in rural Montana.
Bresnan Communications, seeking a $70 million award to build a network that links Montana’s Indian reservations and points in between, believes the agencies have created a “fair, open process,” said Shawn Beqaj, vice president of communications for Bresnan.
Rural telecom providers in Montana that oppose the Bresnan application aren’t so sure.
Geoff Feiss, general manager for the Montana Telecommunications Association, which represents telecom firms and co-ops that serve rural areas, said he has little confidence in the selection process.
While the two agencies — Rural Utilities Service and the National Telecommunications and Information System (NTIA) — say they’re going to review applications carefully, Feiss wonders how that’s possible, with 2,200 applicants asking for $28 billion in funding.
“How are they going to determine whether the applicants’ assertions are valid?” he said. “They don’t even know where Montana is.”
The program, part of President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package, has $7.2 billion nationwide for broadband infrastructure, both grants and loans.
More than a dozen applicants are proposing projects in Montana, including Bresnan.
A Nov. 16 report to Congress by NTIA said the agency recruited 1,000 “highly qualified reviewers” with expertise in broadband-related fields to screen the applications.
The agency also posted the applications online, asked for comment from both state and tribal officials, and from local, existing telecom providers in areas affected by the proposal.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer recommended most of the projects for funding, but said the Bresnan plan should be “top priority.” Rural telecoms also submitted letters to the agencies, objecting to the Bresnan plan.
Yet Feiss said the only existing telecoms allowed to submit comments to the reviewers are those mentioned by the applicant — whether they’re affected by the proposal or not. NTIA’s Web site also lists only the applicant’s executive summary of the proposal, and even that posting has large portions of the Bresnan proposal blacked out, he notes.
“They’re trying to be objective about it, but it’s not terribly transparent,” Feiss said. “I don’t know how they’re going to pick whomever they pick.”
Jessica Schafer, a spokesman in Washington, D.C., for NTIA, said the agency has received “thoughtful comments” from state and tribal officials, and will consider those, but that the agency is relying on its own review to determine who gets the money.
Beqaj said both agencies are allowing plenty of comment, from public officials and others, but have properly limited some of the comment to avoid being lobbied by just anyone.
“They’ve set up a fair, open process, and they’re limiting themselves to the information from that process,” he said.