Digital divide: Gianforte signs $275 million broadband expansion bill

HELENA (Daily Montanan) – Gov. Greg Gianforte signed an ambitious, federally funded broadband expansion package Tuesday, enacting a $275 million investment with pledges to close Montana’s digital divide and shake its slump as one of the least connected states in the country.

The bill, SB297, leverages COVID-19 aid dollars available from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to improve internet access in Montana’s most rural and underserved areas. The broadband money is just one chunk of a $2.7 billion total windfall to the state and its local communities from ARPA.

“Greater access to broadband will increase opportunities for Montanans, whether in (agriculture) or high-tech or other Montana industries, but we need to get more cable in the ground,” Gianforte said in a statement. “Today, we make a historic investment to close the digital divide.”

Under the plan, the Department of Commerce and a steering committee made up of legislators, executive branch staffers and other stakeholders will hear proposals for broadband projects in areas with little or no access to high-speed internet.

Expanding broadband was one of Gianforte’s top priorities coming into office, and became one of a small number of issues with shared support across party and factional lines. The arrival of ARPA partway through the session provided an essentially unprecedented opportunity to fund the state’s ambitions for connectivity.

The signing ceremony took place in Hamilton, home of the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jason Ellsworth. Ellsworth, a Republican who serves as Senate President Pro Tempore, said in a statement that there’s still a possibility for additional funds from the federal government, estimating that the state’s investment could reach a half-billion dollars.

“Sen. Ellsworth’s bill is a substantial step forward in making sure we move the needle toward the goal of ubiquitous access to high-performance, future-proof broadband to all Montanans,” said Geoff Feiss, the general manager of the Montana Telecommunications Association, in a statement.

Much of the other ARPA funds were contained in a separate bill, HB632, which also sets up a series of interim committees divided by subject area to sift through proposals. The committees consist of six lawmakers and three appointees from the governor.