Gianforte Administration Proposes $ 250 Million Broadband Expansion Plan ~ Missoula Current

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(KPAX) HELENA – The Gianforte administration on Wednesday proposed spending $ 350 million in federal funds over the next four years to expand and improve high-speed internet in Montana – and said that still won’t meet statewide needs.

If Montana does not modernize its Internet infrastructure, it will not be able to compete for the businesses of the future, which will increasingly depend on higher electronic data transfer speeds, said chief commercial officer Scott Osterman.

“We have to create an infrastructure that allows people to look at it and say to themselves ‘Wow, look at this – they have deployed a huge broadband network,'” he told a legislative panel on the budget. “And we can put our 15 or 20 people, or 50 or 100, or whatever, and know that we can connect with the rest of the world and do business commercially. “

Osterman also said the administration wanted to create a working group, within the department, that would decide where and how to spend the money.

Osterman spoke to a joint appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday, which will help draft a bill to spend some of the nearly $ 3 billion Montana is expected to get from the federal Covid-19 relief bill passed. last week.

While $ 350 million is a huge amount of money for broadband infrastructure, Osterman estimated that it would take twice that amount – $ 700 million – to give the entire state access. at modernized internet speeds that can support businesses and consumers.

Federal law and guidelines dictate how much of the state’s federal Covid-19 money must be spent in Montana. But at least $ 910 million of the money is discretionary money that the legislature can spend roughly how it sees fit.

Lawmakers from both political parties are proposing different structures for managing and spending money for broadband expansion.

Senator Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, introduced Senate Bill 297, which will likely create the task force and set the parameters for how broadband companies would get the money.

Democratic lawmakers are also preparing bills to create a revolving broadband loan fund, a state “broadband manager” within the Commerce Department, similar to a position described by Osterman.

Osterman said it’s important for Montana to create a broadband infrastructure that will last into the future, capable of handling data speeds that can be much faster than what is currently acceptable.

He noted that Internet speeds have increased by just 12,000 percent over the past decade.

“If we think a gigabyte per second is good now, just look at how far we’ve come over the past decade,” Osterman said. “We don’t know how fast the speed can be.”

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