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HELENA – After months of deliberation, a state commission has issued its recommendations for the distribution of up to $300 million in federal funds to improve high-speed Internet access in Montana.
At a meeting on Wednesday, the ARPA Communications Advisory Commission approved its final ranking of 85 projects that applied for broadband funding. 61 of those projects — in 27 Montana counties — have been recommended for grants, and another 11 are in line for funding if one of the top projects retires or downsizes.
“Is that perfect? No, and I don’t think anything is ever perfect,” said Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, who chairs the commission. “But what that does is it serves Montana best, and I’m proud to say that I think we’ve gotten to that point with the work that we’ve done.”
A link to the full list of projects can be found on the state’s ConnectMT website.
Governor Greg Gianforte must give final approval to the recommendations before any funds are officially allocated.
It was a long, complicated process. The state accepted applications for grants through April, and the first rankings were released in August. After some vendors questioned the rating system, government officials revisited it and came back with updated rankings that shook up the list significantly.
“This has been challenging, to say the least, because in any situation where you spend money, you just don’t have enough to go around — and that’s a fact,” Ellsworth said. “We were significantly oversubscribed.”
The commission was originally set to recommend around $260 million in funding. But state leaders now hope to divert another $44 million in unused American Rescue Plan Act funds to the broadband program. This requires a small change to the state law that approved the program, and lawmakers hope to pass that quickly once the 2023 legislative session begins.
The additional funding would allow another 20 or so projects to receive at least some funding.
About $109 million of the money goes to one provider: Charter Communications, the nationwide telecommunications company that operates Spectrum Internet services. All of Charter’s 28 applications received a high score to qualify for funding, but the commission has set a cap so that no single company can receive more than approximately 35% of the funding.
Charter officials have criticized the addition of the cap throughout the process, but on Wednesday they said they were ready to move forward with the recommendations anyway.
“This is about getting broadband access to those who don’t have broadband access in the most effective way with limited resources,” said Bridger Mahlum, Charter’s director of government affairs. “And with that in mind, as Charter has given more thought to this process, we urge you to support this proposal that you’ve written like this and forward it to the Governor for consideration, because we look forward to getting our shovels out and.” Getting access to Montanans who don’t have it.
However, some providers still expressed disappointment at how they were rated against larger companies and how the state handled overlapping applications. If two projects sought to serve the same area, the higher-scoring proposal received full funding and the authority to add services to all requested locations, while the lower-scoring project could only serve those not included in the other proposal—a corresponding one receive a reduction in funding.
In one case, Charter and Lincoln Telephone Company requested coverage of overlapping locations in the Birdseye area northwest of Helena. Because Charter’s bid was ranked higher, it received most of the disputed service locations. A grant was awarded to the Lincoln Telephone Company, but only for 1% of the funding requested.
Geoff Feiss, general manager of BroadbandMT – formerly the Montana Telecommunications Association – represents local telecommunications companies in Montana. He said these companies were invariably outperformed by larger vendors in the score, leaving them with the most difficult-to-serve locations. He urged the committee to delay its recommendations on several overlapping claims to give the companies a chance to try to reach an agreement to resolve the conflicts.
“We’re willing to work with all vendors to iron out solutions in these areas,” he said. “You can give us a deadline and we will come back with solutions to the few remaining projects that continue to plague the program. By temporarily shelving only a few projects, we are able to proceed with awarding the vast majority of ConnectMT projects. We can remove the few thorns that cause virtually all pain. We can maintain the integrity of the ConnectMT program while promoting and protecting the best interests of the State of Montana. After all, we are all Montanans. We sit down with our neighbors and fix our fences.”
Senator Janet Ellis, D-Helena, proposed this type of delay, but Ellsworth ruled her request void because the commission had already voted to proceed with its recommendations.