HELENA — After months of consideration, a state commission has delivered its recommendations on how to distribute 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 rankings for 85 projects that applied for broadband funding. 61 of those projects – in 27 Montana counties – were recommended to receive grants, and another 11 are in line for funding if any of the top projects withdraw or scale down their scope.
“Is this perfect? No, and I don’t think anything ever is perfect,” said Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, who chairs the commission. “But what this does is, it serves Montana best, and I’m proud to say that I think, with the work that we’ve done, we’ve gotten to that point.”
You can find a link to the full list of projects on the state’s ConnectMT website.
Gov. Greg Gianforte will have to give final approval of the recommendations before any money is officially awarded.
It’s been a long, convoluted process. 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.
“This has been challenging to say the least, because In any situation where you’re handing out money, you just don’t have enough to go around – and that’s a fact,” Ellsworth said. “We were well oversubscribed.”
The commission was initially set to recommend about $260 million in funding. However, state leaders now hope to redirect another $44 million in unused American Rescue Plan Act 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.
The additional funding would allow another 20 or so projects to get at least some grant money.
About $109 million of the money will go to one provider: Charter Communications, the nationwide telecommunications company that runs Spectrum internet services. All 28 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.
Representatives for Charter have criticized the addition of the cap throughout the process, but on Wednesday, they said they were ready for the recommendations to move forward regardless.
“This is about getting broadband access to those who don't have it in the most effective way with limited funds,” said Bridger Mahlum, a state government affairs director with Charter. “And so in that spirit, as Charter has thought more about this process along the way, we would urge you to support this proposal that you have before you as written and pass it along for the Governor's consideration, because we are looking forward to getting our shovels out and getting access to Montanans who don't have it.”
But some providers still expressed disappointment at how they were scored against larger companies, and at how the state handled overlapping applications. When two projects sought to serve the same area, the higher-scored application received full funding and the authority to add service to all locations it asked for, while the lower-scored project would only be able to serve the ones that weren’t included in the other proposal – receiving a corresponding reduction in funding.
In one case, Charter and Lincoln Telephone Company applied to serve overlapping locations in the Birdseye area northwest of Helena. As Charter’s application was ranked higher, it was awarded most of the contested service locations. Lincoln Telephone Company was awarded a grant, but only for 1% of the funding it had asked for.
Geoff Feiss, general manager of BroadbandMT – formerly the Montana Telecommunications Association – represents locally-owned telecom companies in Montana. He said those companies were invariably outranked by larger providers in the scoring, and they were left with the hardest locations to serve. He urged the committee to delay making their recommendations for several overlapping claims, to give the companies a chance to try to come to an agreement on how to resolve the conflicts.
“We're willing to work with all providers to iron out solutions in these areas,” he said. “You can give us a deadline and we'll return with solutions to the few remaining projects that continue to plague the program. By setting aside temporarily just a few projects, we can proceed with awarding the vast majority of ConnectMT projects. We can remove the few thorns that are causing practically all of the pain. We can preserve the integrity of the ConnectMT program while promoting and protecting the best interests of the state of Montana. After all, we're all Montanans. We sit down with our neighbors and mend our fences.”
Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, did propose that type of delay, but Ellsworth ruled her motion out of order, because the commission had already voted to move forward with its recommendations.