The Montana Senate gave an initial endorsement this week to a bill meant to encourage the spread of high-speed internet across the state. The legislation would introduce tax exemptions for businesses that lay the cable needed for high-speed connections.
Republican State Sen. Jason Ellsworth introduced the bill, which he says will provide incentive for telecom companies to lay fiber optic and coaxial cable in the state's underserved areas.
"Will it solve everything? No. No doubt about it. But it's a step in the right direction," Ellsworth says.
He introduced a similar bill that passed the House and Senate in the 2019 legislative session. That bill was vetoed by then Gov. Steve Bullock, who said it would only benefit large companies already doing this work and would be a burden to taxpayers.
Opponents of the latest bill made similar arguments during a Senate Taxation Committee hearing on Monday. Democratic Sen. Edie McClafferty says the bill doesn’t target areas left behind in the digital divide.
"Not once does the bill say anything about placing fiber optics in rural communities."
Geoff Feiss is the general manager of the Montana Telecommunications Association. He says his members "wholeheartedly support it," but that it is not going to fix the problem of many rural and tribal communities lacking broadband.
"It is the only thing so far we have in Montana — and that we can call a broadband-deployment incentive — and it certainly is better than nothing," Feiss says.
He says it will encourage “marginal” investment in jobs and the deployment of cable. Feiss noted that Montana is behind the curve in the race to get high speed internet to everyone. He hopes Montana will build on this effort with a broadband investment program in the future, like many other states have already implemented.
Senate Bill 51 has been sent to the Senate Finance and Claims Committee for consideration.