Bozeman City Hall

A look at Bozeman City Hall on Rouse Avenue.

Bozeman commissioners continued their push for citywide high-speed internet, which would take a lot of buy-in from businesses and developers to become a reality.

City commissioners declared broadband an essential piece of Bozeman’s infrastructure with a unanimous vote Monday.

“The future belongs to the connected and the internet is both the workplace and the marketplace of tomorrow,” Mayor Cyndy Andrus said.

Commissioners said the vote is a message to people building in town that the city wants businesses and homes to have the chance to run on a fiber-optic internet network. Proponents have said it can attract high-paying tech jobs and entrepreneurs.

That citywide vision would take a lot more infrastructure than what Bozeman has.

Monday’s decision lays out some staff-proposed steps. That includes creating a utility master plan for the conduit system that carries the network and an enterprise fund to expand its reach. It also aims to create engineering and design standards for the network.

The declaration was one of the first votes tied to the body’s new list of priority projects in 2019. It also comes after years of city staff laying the groundwork for high-speed internet in Bozeman.

State law mandates while the city can lay and lease out the conduits needed for the network, it can’t provide a service like internet.

Bozeman’s economic department grew a plan for a community-based fiber network. In May 2015, the city created the nonprofit Bozeman Fiber to fund, construct and operate the initial $3.85 million, 23-mile fiber-optic network.

Greg Metzger, of Bozeman Fiber, said the system already connects to some businesses and Bozeman schools. But there are gaps in access for neighborhoods.

Metzger said people who work in their homes have asked to join the system but it’s too expensive for the nonprofit to build out to a neighborhood to reach one house.

“Any kind of extension that we can help those folks with their jobs, will help our quality of life here,” he said. “High-speed fiber is absolutely essential to our model of ‘the most livable place.’”

He estimated if the conduit needed for the network is already in place, it drops the price from roughly $75 a foot to roughly $6 a foot.

People who like the idea of a citywide network said the commission vote leads by example.

Andrew Hull is the president and founder of marketing agency Elixter, which was one of the first buildings on Bozeman’s broadband fiber services. Hull said he grew Elixter from one to 50 employees, which a larger company recently acquired.

“My company is very focused on marketing technology and is very dependent, if not entirely dependent on, high-speed quality internet service,” Hull said. “That access definitely helped us in the last one to two years of growth.”

Commissioner Jeff Krauss voted in favor of the declaration but said he wanted to make sure Bozeman isn’t “betting on the wrong horse.”

“It’s tough to bet on technology when it changes so quickly,” Krauss said. “We may have run copper at one time.”

Commissioner I-Ho Pomeroy supported the plan but noted how expensive it was to create the initial system.

“How can we encourage this one without spending taxpayers’ money?” she asked staff.

The declaration doesn’t offer exact timelines. City documents say commissioners will consider expanding the infrastructure “when appropriate and when funding is available” and align any expansion decisions with Bozeman’s budget and planning.

City staff said it would take time to build up a fund for the infrastructure and the policy around a new utility.

Community Development Director Brit Fontenot said Bozeman has a few options. He said the town could plan what this infrastructure could look like and how it could unfold, which he said would likely come with a price. Or he said Bozeman could continue as is, where someone occasionally creates the infrastructure “but it’s very ad hoc.”

“The city doesn’t have to spend any money and can continue down the path that we’re on now,” he told commissioners. “In my opinion, that does not lend itself to the type of connected community that I think you want.”

Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628. Follow her on Twitter @K_Hought.

Katheryn Houghton is the city government and health reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.