Montana Public Radio: Tech giants call broadband a necessity, say Montana’s gaps must be addressed

Microsoft President Brad Smith’s thoughts on the value of high speed internet is as bold as it is brief: “Broadband has become a necessity of life.”

Giants from the tech sector converged on Missoula this weekend to talk about getting rural Montana online, the future of agriculture, and job creation. Edward O’Brien brings us the highlights from the second biennial Montana High Tech Job Summit.

Smith was the keynote speaker at the second and final day of the Montana High Tech Job Summit in Missoula. This is the second biennial summit hosted by Senator Steve Daines, which brings national tech industry leaders to Montana to talk about job creation.

Microsoft’s Brad Smith told the almost 700 participants Monday that broadband is the future of business, the future of agriculture.

“We’re working to miniaturize and bring down the costs of “internet of things” sensors that can go into farms, be connected with broadband and improve yields for farmers by 20 percent or more,” Smith said. “It’s the future of telemedicine, so a veteran doesn’t have to drive four hours to go to a VA hospital.”

But the rich potential of future high speed internet is tempered by reality.

“There are still 23.4 million Americans who live in rural communities and don’t have access the this ‘necessity of life,’” Smith said. “It’s not a question of money. It doesn’t matter how much money they have. There is no broadband coverage available.”

Verizon Wireless last month notified over 900 rural customers in eastern Montana their services would be terminated by mid-October. The company said the costs of data roaming in parts of eastern Montana were exceeding the amount some customers paid under their monthly plans.

After Montana’s entire congressional delegation intervened, Verizon announced it would give those customers until December 1 to switch plans or providers.

Microsoft President Brad Smith says the company wants America to set a goal to close that so-called broadband gap within five years. Microsoft is researching new technology harnessing the unused spectrum of over-the-air television signals.

These are just the sorts of concepts and ideas that Montana Senator Steve Daines wanted to hear about at this year’s High Tech Job Summit.

Daines points out Montana’s burgeoning tech sector cracked over $1 billion in revenues last year, growing seven times faster than the statewide economy and producing high wage jobs while doing it.

Daines, himself a former VP of cloud-computing startup Right Now Technologies, says tech is changing Montana.

“‘It’s been said that technology has removed geography as a constraint,” Daines said. “There used to be a constraint to doing business in Montana. One of the beauties of Montana is that we’re a long way from any population center. We like that as Montanans, but sometimes it’s difficult to grow jobs here. Connectivity removes that barrier and we’re seeing that here today.”

Federal Communications Commissioner Mignon Clyburn says public-private partnerships will help increase access to high speed internet to rural America. She says federal assistance and oversight will help expedite the process.

“If you don’t have a good regulatory backstop, if you do not have a partner in the government, then these things may happen, but they will happen less efficiently,” Clyburn said. “They will happen slower. And there’s no need for that.”

Extending broadband to underserved rural Montana isn’t going to happen overnight. But cellular company T-Mobile says it’s doing its part with the current construction of almost 100 cell sites across the state.

T-Mobile Executive Vice President Neville Ray says the advent of super-fast, robust, next generation 5G cell service is going to revolutionize the internet as we know it.

“It will transform experiences in urban environments, guaranteed,” Ray said. “But we can also bring that 5G capability now into suburban and rural America. The commitment we’re making, and we’re making here in Montana, is that we will launch 5G by 2020.”

And that drew a round of applause from the audience.

Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte, who 20 years ago founded Right Now Technologies, thinks demand for widespread broadband service will itself help create supply. Gianforte says high speed internet is important, but so is the entrepreneurial spirit.

“I was in a high school a little while back and I asked about 300 high school seniors, ‘How many of you have ever thought about starting your own business?’ Two hands went up. We need to do more to encourage our young people to think about – it’s not right for everybody – but maybe think about starting a business,” Gianforte said.

Senator Steve Daines adds he’d like to see more Montana grade schools teach science, engineering and coding skills to young children:

“The Chinese are doing that now,” Daines said. “They’re moving it all the way to grade school. They’re giving opportunities now in computer programming. It’s important we start moving this upstream because by the time we get to the university level anymore, it’s a little late to the game. We need to start moving it further upstream in our Montana schools.”

The 2017 Montana High Tech Job Summit concluded Monday evening with a job fair.