HELENA — Montana has invited companies to come forward with proposals for expanding broadband to underserved rural and suburban areas. Now, the first recommendations on how to use more than $200 million in federal grants could come in just over three months.
A state advisory commission heard updates Thursday on the process to award the first round of broadband grants, funded through the American Rescue Plan Act.
The state’s initial deadline for companies to apply was April 8, but leaders extended that application window to April 29, because of strong demand and the amount of information needed.
Chad Rupe, the state’s broadband program manager, said they’re aware of about 54 potential projects from more than 20 providers, but only three have been officially submitted so far.
“We just don’t know the total amount of money that’s being requested yet, until they actually hit the submit button,” he said. “We don’t know inside of those applications that are being worked on exactly what is being requested and from whom.”
Leaders said the applications would all be made public one week after the deadline. After that, applicants can challenge other bidders if they believe their proposals serve areas that already have sufficient broadband service. The state will resolve those challenges by the end of June.
By early July, Rupe and his team will rank the proposals based on a point system. Applicants can get points for offering higher speeds to more customers, jobs they create, getting the project done faster, and making the service available to low- and moderate-income households.
The commission will then make recommendations on which projects should receive funding. Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office will have the final say.
Also during the meeting, the commission talked about possible accountability measures to make sure companies that receive grants complete their work. Rupe initially proposed holding back some of the grant funding until the projects are finished, but said the state was willing to drop that requirement in response to public comments. Instead, they’ll try to get funding back from companies that don’t comply.
During the meeting, some companies interested in applying said they worried they could face unforeseen delays, due to inflation, rising project costs and supply chain issues.
You can find more information about the broadband grant program on the ConnectMT website.