Dept. of Administration Director Misty Ann Giles and Gov. Greg Gianforte at a press event announcing $308 million in broadband connectivity grants Dec. 14, 2022. Credit: Eric Dietrich / MTFP

Gov. Greg Gianforte put his signature on a $309 million list of broadband grants intended to expand rural connectivity across Montana Wednesday, clearing the way for private internet companies to begin publicly subsidized construction on what the governor called a “historic” investment in closing the state’s digital divide.

Gianforte’s action endorses the list of grant awards approved last week by a commission of lawmakers and Gianforte administration officials tasked with advising the governor on the broadband program, which is funded by federal pandemic stimulus money from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act.

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$309 million in broadband grants headed for Gianforte’s approval

A state commission has advanced grant recommendations for a $309 million rural broadband connectivity push, moving a previously delayed grantmaking process forward despite concerns voiced by Montana-based internet companies about the amount — approximately $110 million — slated for telecom giant Charter Communications.

The advisory commission, chaired by Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, and Department of Administration Director Misty Ann Giles, has spent the last year and a half working out how to develop the ConnectMT program to allocate the broadband money, a first-of-its-kind effort for state government.

“For too long, the lack of broadband access has stood in the way of Montana reaching its full and outstanding potential,” Gianforte said Wednesday. “Broadband enables rural health care via telemedicine, access to education for students and jobs for teleworkers. That’s why increasing access to broadband has been one of my top priorities since taking office.”

The awards include $110 million for Charter Communications, which generally proposed projects on the outskirts of Montana’s major urban centers. The amount of funding being allocated to Charter, a national telecommunications company that offers service in Montana under the Spectrum brand, has spurred criticism from some smaller, Montana-based telecommunications companies that were competing for funding and argued their proposals were better equipped to meet the needs of rural customers.

According to a Montana Free Press analysis of the broadband awards, 65% of the grant money — nearly two-thirds — is going to projects in Montana’s eight most-populous counties. That includes all but one of Charter’s 18 awarded projects. (The exception expands the company’s service in northern Jefferson County, where many residents commute to Helena).

Twenty-three percent of the total grants, accounting for $70 million, is slated for projects in Ravalli County, home to 46,000 residents in the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula.

Ellsworth, who was elected Montana Senate President last month, represents a state Senate district that covers southern Ravalli County. He has said a scoring system developed by the commission provided a fair and transparent mechanism for ranking grants.

“Is this perfect? No. And I don’t think anything ever is perfect. But what this does is it serves Montana best,” Ellsworth said of the grants list at an advisory commission meeting last week.

At the suggestion of Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, the advisory commission adopted a 35% cap on the amount of funding awarded to any given entity, limiting Charter’s slice of the pie so more money was available for other providers and more proposals could be funded in eastern Montana.

Gianforte said at a brief press availability Wednesday that the funded grants would support installation of 3,000 miles of fiber optic lines providing service to 62,000 homes and businesses. He said the state categorizes about 38,000 of those service locations as in currently unserved areas, about 22,000 as in underserved areas and 1,300 as in “frontier” areas.

“The vast majority of this money is going to unserved communities across the state,” he said.

Gianforte acknowledged that the state has “more work to do” on broadband. He said he is pleased that the state will be receiving additional broadband dollars from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, adding that the state has learned from its experience administering the current round of grants.

Both the American Rescue Plan Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act were passed by the Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress and opposed by most congressional Republicans, including Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale. When the American Rescue Plan Act passed in March 2021, Gianforte, a Republican, called it a “fiscally irresponsible progressive wish list” in a tweet from his official account. His office has since said he’s committed to ensuring that Montana’s relief money is put toward effective long-term investments.

“These are big projects that will help Montana now and for decades to come,” Gianforte said Wednesday. “Deploying broadband in rural areas is foundational to our new and evolving economy.”

This story is published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project, which explores Montana’s economy with in-depth reporting. This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans. Discuss MTFP’s Long Streets work with Lead Reporter Eric Dietrich at edietrich@montanafreepress.org.

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Eric DietrichDeputy Editor

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.