Gianforte signs off on ARPA broadband expansion funding

Gianforte signs off on APRA broadband expansion funding
Posted at 4:26 PM, Dec 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-14 18:56:53-05

HELENA — On Wednesday morning, Governor Greg Gianforte signed off on an agreement to invest around $309 million of ARPA funding to expand broadband in Montana.

The grants, which focus on rural Montana, will fund 61 broadband expansion projects in 27 counties across the state.

The Gianforte administration says the grants are estimated to provide broadband to 61,887 serviceable locations including homes, businesses, farms and ranches. Of those locations, 38,631 of them are in unserved communities, 21,956 in underserved communities and 1,300 in frontier communities.

Gianforte told reporters Wednesday the digital divide between Montana’s broadband infrastructure and other parts of the country has been an issue for decades and has only grown more prevalent.

“With today’s investment, Montanans across the state will have greater access to opportunities for employment, healthcare and education,” said Gianforte. “And businesses in every corner of our state will be able to grow prosper and create more good-paying Montana jobs.”

According to the Federal Communications Commission, about 1 in 3 Montanans do not have access to broadband, which is three times the national average. The digital divide is even greater in Montana’s rural communities where 3 in 5 Montanans do not have access to broadband.

It’s been a long, convoluted process to get to this point.

The projects were recommended by the Montana ARPA Communications Advisory Commission. The state took applications for grants through April, and initial rankings came out in August. After some providers questioned the scoring system, state staff went back over it and came back with updated rankings that shook up the list significantly.

Under the federal American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, Montana was allocated $266 million to upgrade broadband access in unserved and underserved areas. The state put together the ConnectMT grant program and invited companies to make proposals. However, state leaders also hope to redirect another $44 million in unused ARPA money to the broadband program. That will require a small change to the state law that authorized the program, and lawmakers hope to pass that quickly once the 2023 legislative session begins.

About $109 million of the money will go to one provider: Charter Communications. All of Charter’s applications scored high enough to qualify for a grant, but the commission adopted a cap so no single company can receive more than about 35% of the funding. Critics of the process argued the funding allocation may leave much of the state’s rural areas still unserved.

The deadline for ARPA funding to be expended is Dec. 31, 2026. Misty Ann Giles, Director of the Department of Administration and the state’s Chief Operating Officer who leads the broadband program, said the state will be working with all parties to ensure funding is spent.