By Martin Kidston

The Missoula Economic Partnership last week launched a new survey exploring the broadband needs of area businesses, and whether the city's current network is capable of meeting their Internet demands.

Jenni Graff, an economic development associate with MEP, said the results will help determine whether high-speed connectivity is needed in Missoula, and whether a consortium of partners should be organized to pursue it.

“The whole point is to find out whether or not our current broadband infrastructure is delivering in-house service for the business class,” said Graff. “Is what we have currently sufficient? Is there an appetite for an expanded broadband network in Missoula?”

The survey poses a number of questions, from pricing to customer satisfaction. It asks businesses to detail their current use of the Internet, from file sharing to streaming video, and how much they'd be willing to pay for broadband service.

The survey follows on the heels of a broadband master plan completed last year by Design Nine, Inc. That effort was headed by the Bitterroot Economic Development District, which has since been folded into MEP.

“The master plan looked at how to do it, what the structure would look like, and how to fund it,” said Graff. “It was more about the operation, and they didn't necessarily make a business case for who would be converting to this network.”

The master plan was also completed with the assumption that Missoula County Public Schools would serve as an anchor broadband tenant. But the school district is now installing its own network using funding provided in last year's general obligation bond.

Graff said more than 160 cities nationally have built out a broadband network, including Bozeman. Several area businesses have already upgraded their Intranet service, though questions remain whether a city-wide network is needed.

“That's what I'm trying to find out,” said Graff. “That's what we're hoping to glean from the survey. Once we get the results, we can start evaluating whether or not there's a business case for this network.”

Graff mentioned the survey last month during MEP's first quarterly update to the Missoula City Council. Since then, she has sent it out to more than 200 contacts through MEP.

“I gleaned our entire contact list and contacted everyone we've touched base with,” said Graff. “I want to get 80 responses. I'm hoping for a 40 percent return rate, at least.”