Montana ranks 50th out of 51 in affordable broadband service. The internet has become so vital to maintaining our healthy state economy that it is no longer optional for most Montanans, their businesses, and schools. Your Montana Legislature attempted to address this issue, but the “solution” will turn out to be one of the biggest corporate handouts in our state’s history.
House Democrats went to Helena this winter to take on this digital divide. Our caucus brought bills from several different angles: a revolving loan for our local internet providers, a statewide broadband coordinator, and the “Dig Once” bill that pairs fiber optic builds with road construction. I brought a bill to repeal an outdated regulation that prevents our towns from improving their internet infrastructure that, after initial overwhelming support, died dramatically on the House floor due to industry lobbying.
Colleagues across the aisle also brought a couple bills addressing internet access, but with one key difference; their bills favored out-of-state mega-corporations over local small businesses and residents. One particularly horrifying bill basically subsidizes giant companies, through tax breaks, to run our Ma-and-Pop internet providers and local telecom co-ops out of business.
The most impactful internet legislation came in the last week of the session: Senate Bill 297, “the ConnectMT Act.” Congress had just appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act relief funds to Montana with the express purpose of improving internet infrastructure. The Republican majority’s bill created a grant program in which Internet Service Providers can request these federal dollars to expand their internet networks, in areas of their choosing, not necessarily the places where Montanans find internet service is inadequate or nonexistent. Despite excessive belly-aching over the source of the funds (the Democratic Congress), the Republican majority rushed the bill through in the final week of the Legislative session, rewriting it several times. The bill improved upon each version, but the final version that became law is still badly flawed.
The bill requires that companies applying for the grants provide at least 20% of the funding, which effectively blocks smaller local providers from participating, as they don’t have deep pockets like their larger competitors. This disadvantages our rural towns especially, as they often only have a single small provider
There is also the fact that taxpayers will be paying for construction costs for billion-dollar private companies. When all is said and done, these companies will own thousands of miles of internet infrastructure, profiting on it for a generation. You and your fellow ratepayers will provide that profit, and most of it will head straight to out-of-state bank accounts never to be seen in our state again.
Simply put, the Republican-controlled Legislature has taken this once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the lives of everyday Montanans and handed it to billion-dollar corporations.
When we receive this first payment of $275,000,000 in federal funding, this money should be spent in Montana, stay in Montana, and be owned by Montanans. Ask your legislators to invest here, instead of in mega-corporations from places like Connecticut, Texas and New York. You will elect the Montana Legislature next year, and your legislators can and should reassess this program in 2023.
It’s not all bad news. Some of you and your neighbors in Montana will get access to the internet and you’ll see the quality of that internet improve. But for nearly $300 million, you should be getting so much more.