HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana lawmakers are considering issuing $15 million in bonds to help expand Internet, phone and cable services to isolated communities.
Rep. Kelly McCarthy introduced a bill on behalf of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock on Monday, less than two months after a federal agency determined that, of the 50 states, Montana provides the least access to standard broadband speeds.
The Billings Democrat’s measure, House Bill 14, would fund up to one-half or $2.5 million of any project to install broadband framework, specifically infrastructure wiring, and would require non-governmental organizations to provide a minimum one-quarter of the cost of a participating project.
“While the focus of this bill is on economic development, sub-optimal broadband infrastructure puts us at a disadvantage not only economically, but also educationally and from a health and safety standpoint,” said Dan Lloyd, business development specialist in the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
Under the proposal, the Montana Department of Commerce would allocate the state aid to projects that target people lacking access to broadband that runs at 4 megabits per second.
For Jim Ahrens, a lobbyist who lives near Craig and spoke in support of the bill on his own behalf, the proposal would mean his rural community could join the vast majority of the nation with access to 4 megabit broadband.
“I’m on satellite and you could put on High Noon and try to download it, and it might be high midnight by the time you got it,” Ahrens said. “There are a lot of people who would like to have (broadband) and I think the state has to take a role in this in some way.”
On a larger scale, McCarthy said his proposal would create incentives to expand broadband services in an effort to stimulate Montana’s economy.
Lloyd said in support of the proposal in the House Appropriations Committee that Internet access is vital to participation in the 21st century and its importance will only continue to grow.
“Broadband gives Montana the opportunity to overcome a factor that has long challenged economic opportunity in our state — distance to major markets,” Lloyd said of the fourth geographically largest state.
The proposal would allow cities or towns, tribal governments and nonprofit corporations recognized by the Department of Commerce to apply for the grants.
State Librarian Jenny Stapp said 30 percent of Montana libraries fall in the needy category outlined in the proposal.
Nanette Gilbertson of the Montana Library Association said faster Internet speeds are vital for libraries, which provide an access point for people who don’t have technology or Internet at home.
Multiple representatives of the telecommunications industry testified in favor of the measure, saying it would bring new and expanded business to the state. They also supported a provision of the bill that protects against monopolized broadband services.
No one spoke against the bill.
On Jan. 29, the Federal Communications Commission changed the federal definition of broadband to service speeds of 25 megabits per second, up from the 4 megabits per second definition enacted in 2010. The agency also released a study that found only 13 percent of Montanans can access that broadband speed. The national average is 83 percent.