Lawmakers in the Montana House gave a preliminary thumbs-up Wednesday to a bill that would expand legislative oversight of the state’s federally funded broadband internet program, which will likely direct hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidizing rural Montana connectivity in the coming years.
House Bill 484, sponsored by Rep. Katie Sullivan, D-Missoula, would rework an existing legislative committee created in 2021 to provide oversight as the broadband dollars are allocated by officials working under Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte. It would also direct state officials to prioritize projects proposed by Montana-based telecom providers and distribute grant awards more evenly across the state.
The House endorsed HB 484 on a 74-26 vote following a brief floor debate Wednesday. Before it can advance to the Senate, the bill must still clear a final vote in the House before a Friday transmittal deadline.
An initial $309 million round of ConnectMT broadband subsidies was formally awarded by Gianforte in December. That money, which came from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, was allocated to private telecom companies for projects that would expand their networks in underserved parts of the state.
“These are big projects that will help Montana now and for decades to come,” Gianforte said at the time. “Deploying broadband in rural areas is foundational to our new and evolving economy.”
Democrats and some smaller, Montana-based telecommunications companies, however, criticized those awards as disproportionately favoring telecom giant Charter Communications. Charter, which is based in Connecticut and does business in Montana under the Spectrum brand, was awarded $110 million for 18 projects, more than a third of the overall sum.
In part because of where Charter proposed its expansions, the first round of awards also generally favored projects on the outskirts or urban counties, meaning relatively few dollars went to Montana’s most rural communities.
According to a Montana Free Press analysis, 65% of the grants — nearly two-thirds — were awarded to projects in Montana’s eight most-populous counties. Additionally, 23% of the total grants, accounting for $70 million, was awarded to projects in Ravalli County south of Missoula.
A committee advising Gov. Greg Gianforte on a massive state grant program billed as a historic effort to enhance broadband connectivity across rural Montana has plowed into rocky ground as it considers a list of recommended projects this month. An initial ranking of proposed grants to private telecom companies, produced by the state Department of…
The governor says network expansion grants to private providers will boost rural Montana’s connectivity for work, education and telehealth. Nearly two-thirds of the money is going to projects in the state’s eight most-populous counties.
Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, who chaired the broadband advisory committee, represents a district that covers southern Ravalli County and is now serving as president of the Montana Senate. As the broadband awards drew criticism last year, he defended the integrity of the awards process he oversaw while acknowledging it could be improved for future funding rounds.
“Is this perfect? No. And I don’t think anything ever is perfect. But what this does is it serves Montana best,” Ellsworth said at a December advisory committee meeting.
As they reviewed her bill last week, Sullivan told lawmakers on the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations committee that the state could receive as much as $400 million more for its broadband program from the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
“During the last time, we saw what I will call a concentration of projects granted around urban areas,” Sullivan said at the committee hearing. “I would like to see greater spread across the state in a geographic way.”
Language in HB 484 requires the broadband program to prioritize awards that are located in rural areas and that “are economically infeasible without state support.”
The bill would also amend the membership of the program’s oversight committee, which is currently dominated by GOP lawmakers and Gianforte administration officials. The committee would be reworked to include balanced representation from Republican and Democratic lawmakers. The bill would also add a committee member representing the Montana telecommunications industry and a member representing tribal governments.
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 email@example.com.
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