Montana gets $126M to expand rural broadband service

Six internet providers are expected to extend broadband service to nearly 46,000 homes and businesses in rural Montana with nearly $126 million from the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC announced Monday it will grant $9.2 billion to internet providers from its Rural Development Opportunity Fund over the next 10 years, following an auction that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called “the single largest step ever taken to bridge the digital divide.”

Big winners in the auction include Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which received nearly $886 million to expand broadband in 35 states. That includes nearly $73 million for more than 29,000 sites in Montana. The company is on an ambitious mission to launch thousands of satellites into space as part of its Starlink project, creating a massive network to expand broadband across rural parts of the country.

The other companies that won funding to expand internet service in Montana are CenturyLink, Commnet Wireless, Frontier Communications Northwest, the Blackfoot Telephone Cooperative and the Rural American Broadband Consortium.

SpaceX won bids to provide internet across Montana, including swaths of Lincoln, Flathead and Glacier counties and small pockets along the Hi-Line at Cut Bank, Shelby and Havre. SpaceX also will serve an area east of Bigfork, while CenturyLink will serve long stretches east and west of Flathead Lake down to Polson, as well as a stretch along U.S. 2. Frontier Communications will expand internet across much of Sanders County.

“This is great news for rural Montana,” U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said in a statement. He added the funding will “bring some of our most remote areas of the state together through high-speed internet access.”

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., also celebrated the FCC’s announcement, saying internet access is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Fast, reliable internet service is critical, especially as we continue working, learning and socializing from home,” Tester said in a statement. “But too many folks in Montana have slow, unreliable internet or don’t have access altogether, and this groundbreaking investment will help bring those homes and businesses into the 21st century. Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and make sure these resources are deployed quickly and effectively, and ensure no Montanan is left behind.”

Tester’s office also highlighted the importance of internet access for providing telemedicine.

Both Daines and Tester are sponsoring a bill that would establish a $2 billion fund at the FCC to compensate rural broadband providers with fewer than 250,000 customers for offering free or discounted services to families struggling financially due to the pandemic.

Hundreds of homes, farms and businesses in Montana’s Big Horn, Stillwater and Carbon counties also stand to gain internet access thanks to a recent $10.9 million grant and loan package from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.