PHILIPSBURG — Last year, Montana allocated millions of dollars in federal grants to help expand high-speed internet service in communities statewide. Now, the work is beginning to bring those projects to fruition.
Along Skalkaho Highway, in Granite County south of Philipsburg, crews were recently laying fiber-optic cables. They used a piece of equipment that plows through the ground, places a cable and covers it with warning tape – all in a single pass. A few miles away, workers were in an alley in the town of Philipsburg, digging a trench and carefully working around existing service lines.
The crews were working on behalf of Blackfoot Communications, a cooperative based in Missoula that provides phone and internet services to more than 13,000 members in western Montana and parts of Idaho. They’ve already installed dozens of miles of fiber across Granite County. Eventually, they'll cover more than 250 miles throughout the area, replacing aging copper wire serving almost 1,500 locations.
In Philipsburg, Mayor Daniel Reddish says the prospect of upgraded service has his constituents excited.
“The idea of fiber optics and what it would bring to rural Montana – I find it analogous to the 1930’s rural electrification program, in terms of opening opportunity and getting us up to speed,” he said.
Reddish says leaders have been working hard to get the word out about Philipsburg, a historic mining town popular with visitors, and growth has come along with that. He says their current connectivity has been “sufficient,” but upgrades would be a big difference maker for people working from home – and far beyond that.
“If people can do things online, that has a positive effect on, for instance, having to travel back and forth, fuel costs, environmental concerns – all that sort of thing,” he said.
Last year, Montana started distributing up to $300 million in broadband funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act — a spending package approved by congressional Democrats in 2021. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester was the only member of Montana's congressional delegation to vote for the package.
A state commission recommended 61 broadband projects in 27 Montana counties to receive a share of the funding. Gov. Greg Gianforte signed off on the recommendations shortly after, setting the stage for another 60,000 homes and businesses to receive new or upgraded high-speed internet service.
Blackfoot is responsible for seven of the projects – two near Philipsburg, two near Potomac, and one each in Plains, Drummond and Darby. Together, they’ll bring improved fiber internet to more than 4,000 service locations.
In some areas, the new service lines run for miles through rural country with relatively few customers. Blackfoot public affairs manager Chris Laslovich says they’re used to serving this type of area – and putting in the infrastructure now could have benefits for decades to come.
“There are limitations with copper,” he said. “Because we're talking about strands of glass and transmitting data over waves of light, that's going to last well into the future – and any upgrades that are needed aren't the actual strands of fiber itself; it's the equipment that connects them.”
Blackfoot is set to receive about $60 million for this work through the ARPA grants. They’ll provide about a quarter of the project costs through their own matching funds.
Blackfoot leaders had already been planning a major multi-year project to replace copper lines with fiber-optic across their service area, but Laslovich said the ARPA grants have allowed them to leverage the money and accelerate their upgrades.
“For far too long, Montana was behind other states in terms of access to high-speed internet,” he said. “Closing that gap will mean that no matter where you live, you'll have access, you'll have opportunities – really, you'll have freedom to start a business where you want, to access tools and resources online for education or any other number of things.”
That’s a sentiment Reddish agrees with.
“We feel that we are as entitled as anyone to get an up-to-date sort of experience with respect to the Internet and being able to use a computer for both business and regular communications,” he said.
Blackfoot began its projects in the Philipsburg area in late spring. The timeline for the work remains dependent on weather, but leaders hope it will be done late this year or early next year.
Reddish said the town has had a good working relationship with Blackfoot so far. He said he’s excited that, once the work is complete, they’ll have a new amenity they can highlight when welcoming visitors.
“We're looking forward to just sort of blending the 19th century with the 21st century,” he said.