Jonathon Ambarian

HELENA (KPAX) — Last year, a state advisory commission made recommendations for how to distribute more than $300 million in federal broadband funding across Montana. Now, another commission has started planning for the next round of federal funds – with twice as much money available, but much different regulations on how it can be used.

In June, the federal government announced it had allocated nearly $629 million to improve access to affordable and reliable high-speed internet service Montana. The money comes from the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment, or BEAD, program – part of the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in 2021.

Each state’s allocation of BEAD funds was based on the unserved areas that need to be connected. Montana is set to receive about $560 per resident – one of the highest amounts per-capita in the country.

The broadband funding the state awarded last year came from the American Rescue Plan Act. State leaders say that money came with much less specific requirements than the BEAD funding will have.

“ARPA just simply said make broadband, deploy it, keep everybody in compliance,” said Montana Department of Administration Director Misty Ann Giles, at a Wednesday meeting of the state’s IIJA Communications Advisory Commission. “As we've talked about for months, this could not be more different.”

The BEAD funding is specifically intended to get broadband to every location in the state that’s unserved – meaning they either have no broadband service or their only service provides download speeds of less than 25 megabits per second. In Montana, about 16% of rural locations are unserved, and another 6% are underserved. However, even populous counties like Yellowstone, Gallatin, Flathead and Missoula have thousands of unserved locations.

Giles said one of the biggest questions state leaders are getting is whether the $629 million will be enough to connect all these locations.

“That is a magic eight ball question, but the answer is yes and no,” she said.

Giles said the funding would not be enough to pay for installing fiber lines to all unserved locations, so they will have to look at other technologies, like fixed wireless, to reach some areas.

The state commission is now tasked with putting together an “initial proposal” that lays out their plan for how to choose providers to build the new broadband infrastructure. They have until Dec. 30 to submit the proposal for federal approval. Until that happens, none of the BEAD funding will actually be available to the state.

“There is no cash in the bank,” Giles said. “I think that’s the uniqueness, unlike ARPA when we got those allocations.”

One of the first steps will be making sure both state and federal authorities have an accurate picture of what locations in Montana are unserved or underserved.

“It is a constant effort of getting more information and refining,” said Adam Carpenter, the state’s chief data officer.

As part of that effort, Giles said the state plans to release a survey tool later this year, where residents will be able to take an “internet speed test” to measure their current service. If they find areas where many test results show poor service quality, they can send out engineers to do more formal testing.

“Engineering going out for one location takes eight hours,” said Giles. “And so while we have engineers on staff and a contract to do that for us, given the sheer size of this state, it's not practical for us to go on a wild goose chase.”

Leaders said BEAD puts significantly more limits on how the state can score providers’ applications for funding, when compared with ARPA.

The commission plans to do much of the work on their initial proposal at meetings in August and September.