Tester, Daines and FCC Chairman push for more broadband

by Kristen Cates

With laptops and tablets for all elementary students and the support of local Internet providers, the students at Fairfield Elementary School are fairing pretty well when it comes to Internet accessibility.

But as Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler, Montana’s senators, school officials and providers discussed Tuesday, only 49 percent of Montana’s public schools have access to high-speed Internet.

“Fairfield was a school that was an early adopter (of technology) and worked diligently,” said Kirk Miller, executive director of School Administrators of Montana. “That isn’t the case with much of the rest of Montana.”

According to a report given to the Montana Legislature’s interim economic affairs committee in August, only 13 percent of Montanans have access to Internet with speeds of 25 megabits per second, compared with 83 percent of the U.S. population, according to a 2014 report from the FCC.

It’s an issue Wheeler is well aware of. The 17 percent of Americans without high-speed access is predominantly live in rural areas – which aptly describes Montana.

Wheeler toured the school with Montana’s Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and also participated in a round-table discussion with Republican Sen. Steve Daines, Internet providers and business leaders in Great Falls to learn about innovations that are occurring as well as the challenges the state is facing.

“We’ve heard some of the amazing things small businesses are doing,” Tester said.

Tester is pushing the FCC to expand its universal service fund from only supporting telecommunication services to supporting the buildup of broadband services.

He’s launched his own Connect Montana initiative, which aims to do three things: expand access to reliable Internet, guarantee rural call completion and strengthen Montana’s local broadcasting.

Tester and Daines have introduced the Internet Tax Freedom Forever Act that would permanently ban federal, state and local government from taxing Internet access. Tester said it costs about $15 million to provide high-speed access for 33,000 people.

“We have to figure out a way to get those public-private partnerships going,” Tester said.

Daines said not only is connectivity important as a consumer, it’s also important as Montana develops high-paying, high-tech jobs. The infrastructure has to be there in order to create the opportunities.

“As I think about the investment in broadband, it’s an investment in innovation,” Daines said.

Wheeler said providers in Montana have made a lot of effort to expand access to the rural and remote corners of Montana. He said he expects to see improvement in access and connectivity within the year.

“The job that those service providers in Montana have been doing has been laudable,” Wheeler said. “They have delivered service to everyone.”

But he said those speeds need to improve, which is why the universal service program has given $90 million to subsidize Montana phone and Internet companies to provide service where it wouldn’t be economically feasible.

– Tribune Staff Writer Phil Drake contributed to this report