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Feds approve Montana’s plan to expand broadband access

by By NICOLE GIRTEN Daily Montanan
| April 9, 2024 7:00 AM

The federal government approved Montana’s plan to address disparities in broadband access – which opens up the state to compete for more federal funding to bridge the digital divide.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration on Tuesday approved the state’s plan to expand digital access, skills and affordability as part of the federal $2.75 billion Digital Equity Act.

Montana’s Digital Opportunity Plan listed barriers to digital access, which include broadband availability, service affordability, device access, and digital skills – with access and affordability being the top two. 

The plan is intended to serve as a guide for the state’s efforts to narrow the digital divide. Montana ranks lowest in the country in internet access, with rural communities struggling with access the most.

The state created the plan using just more than $600,000 from the State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program, according to the NTIA.

Gov. Greg Gianforte said in a statement one of his administration’s top priorities is to expand broadband access to underserved and unserved areas of Montana and address digital literacy.

“Lack of broadband access shouldn’t stand between Montanans and opportunities for a good-paying job, greater education, and affordable, high-quality health care,” Gianforte said.

The Department of Administration drafted the Digital Opportunity Plan in tandem with the BEAD Five Year Action Plan – which the state submitted along with initial proposals to access $629 million in federal funds to deploy high-speed fiber in unserved communities across the state. The plan said efforts to improve broadband availability will largely be funded through BEAD – the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Program.

In 2022, the state signed off on $309 million in grants using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act towards broadband projects. The Department of Administration, which oversees the Montana Broadband Office, said Wednesday the approved grants from this funding were “awarded and are under contract with the respective awardees.” The department did not respond to a question about the status of these projects in time for publication.

The Digital Opportunity Plan outlined how broadband access is necessary to implement the state’s goals across departments, including in the economy, workforce development, education, health care, civic and social engagement, and the delivery of other essential services.

The main reason some Montanans don’t have access to high speed internet is lack of availability, the plan says.

More than 70% of the elderly, veterans, and racial and ethnic minorities – ‘target communities’ in the plan – reported not having high speed internet available to them, and noted lack of available internet options as a key barrier to access.

The state is also looking to bring service to rural communities, low-income Montanans, incarcerated people in state facilities, people with disabilities, and those with language barriers. These communities lack internet access at higher rates than other groups in the state, according to the plan.

The approved plan says rural areas in the state have the highest total number of unserved and underserved broadband access areas, with 7,826 underserved and 19,208 unserved. Rural communities also have higher elderly populations who either can’t afford broadband or don’t have digital skills to access the internet.

Most Montana counties use some form of broadband, but five counties – Rosebud, Glacier, Powell, Mineral and Roosevelt – have less than 60% adoption of broadband from satellites, cell phone data or DSL.

The second most common reason for not having broadband in Montana is affordability, with the Montana Broadband Office finding 17% of Montanans without high speed internet citing cost as their top reason for not having access. The state ranks 49th in access to affordable internet plans, according to BroadbandNow in 2021, with 62% of households having access to plans for $60 per month or less. The state also ranked last in access to high speed internet.

The state is planning to use federal dollars through BEAD to get broadband access to unserved and underserved areas. Internet providers are starting to apply to pre-qualify for BEAD-funded projects to the Communications Advisory Commission. The commission is scheduled to select projects and submit a finished proposal at the end of the year.