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Montana will get nearly $630 million to help expand broadband access

 IT Administrator Plugs in RJ45 Internet Connector into LAN Router Switc
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Macro Shot: IT Administrator Plugs in RJ45 Internet Connector into LAN Router Switch. Information Communication Network in Data Center with Cables Connected to Modem Ports with Blinking Lights

Montana is set to receive nearly $630 million to expand broadband access in the state. State officials say they’re now in the planning phase to decide where broadband access will be expanded. The funding is part of a massive federal investment from the 2021 infrastructure bill.

Speaking at the White House, President Joe Biden likened the broadband expansion initiative to the 1936 Rural Electrification Act.

“Today, Kamala and I are making an equally historic investment to connect everyone in America to affordable high speed internet by 2030,” Biden said.

Most places in America that lack high-speed internet are rural.

Fewer than 6% of Montanans have access to fiber optic service, says Tyler Cooper with the research and advocacy group BroadbandNow. He agrees the infrastructure act funding is historic.

“It is the most holistic approach to closing the digital divide in the U.S. ever,” Cooper said.

Montana’s Republican congressional delegation voted against the infrastructure bill, but Gov. Greg Gianforte and other Republican governors are embracing the broadband money.

“Broadband access at this point is seen as vital to economic development,” Eric Raile said.

Raile teaches political science at Montana State University Bozeman.

“There seems to be real demand for it in rural areas, which feel like they’ve been left behind in some respects,” Raile said.

Gianforte said broadband is crucial for good-paying jobs.

Tyler Cooper with BroadbandNow said previous funding often didn’t reach those most in need because internet companies decided where to expand their networks.

He said this funding is different because each state will be required to craft plans with public input and get federal approval before the money is distributed.

“Handing the reins to these sort of state broadband offices and having them in charge of putting together a plan with local communities is just about the best way I can think of to try and make this more effective,” Cooper said.

He said that transparency should help the most underserved communities finally connect to the internet, leveling the economic playing field for rural America.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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