Montana taking another look at scoring for ARPA broadband projects

Crew installing fiber-optic cable for Internet access northwest of Augusta
Posted at 5:48 PM, Aug 22, 2022

HELENA — A state commission says it wants to take more time to finish its scoring process before deciding how to divide up $260 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding for upgrading broadband internet service.

On Monday, Montana’s ARPA Communications Advisory Commission announced state ARPA director Scott Mendenhall would go back over the initial rankings of the 75 projects that applied for a share of the funding.

Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, who chairs the commission, said it was worth it to put “an independent set of eyes” on the scoring that will eventually help determine which projects get grants.

“At the end of the day, our job is to make sure that we do what’s best for Montana,” he said. “And I can assure you, that that is happening.”

Ellsworth said the decision to have Mendenhall look at the scoring comes in response to public testimony. At a public meeting earlier this month, some local telecom companies questioned the rankings, saying the scoring missed some of their projects’ advantages.

Ellsworth said the initial rankings were always preliminary, and this is not a “re-scoring.” He said the Montana Department of Administration and its contractor have done good work so far. No new information will be added to the applications at this point.

“I’ve promised an open and thoroughly vetted process to the public, so Director Mendenhall will pick a few people and go through and double-check our homework,” Ellsworth said. “At the end of the day, I think we’ll end up with a product that serves Montana best.”

The 46 projects at the top of the initial rankings covered parts of 21 counties, with the majority in western and central Montana. 20 of the top-ranked projects were from a single company, Charter Communications – putting the nationwide company in position to receive up to $126 million, nearly half of the available funding.

Bridger Mahlum, a state government affairs director with Charter, said Monday they hoped any review of the scoring would be complete and consistent for all applicants. He said Charter understood and appreciated the commission’s desire to be thorough, but that they were concerned extending the process could delay the company’s projects that are otherwise ready to start this year.

“These projects are shovel-ready, but may not necessarily be snow-shovel-ready,” Mahlum said.

Jon Metropoulos, representing the applicants Tri County Telephone and Gallatin Wireless, supported the commission’s action.

“The rules of the game were set by the bills; you have the discretion to do this,” he said. “You’re not changing the rules at all by doing a very careful job, so thank you for doing your job.”

Ellsworth said there’s no specific timeline yet for when the final scoring could be completed.