Great Falls Tribune: It's official, Montana has the worst internet service in the nation

by David Murray

A recent state-by-state survey of internet access has found that Montana has the worst internet service in the nation with data transmission speeds only slightly better than half the national average.

Internet service vendor conducted the survey of home internet speeds using data collected from 3,105 U.S. cities and towns and from more than 1.7 million laptops, desktop computers, and home-connected devices. The survey found that mean download speeds in Montana average 54.4 megabits per second (Mbps) – dead last among all 50 states and the District of Columbia. According to the national average is 99.3 Mbps.

A bit is a single piece of binary data; either yes or no, on or off, up or down. As a general rule it takes eight bits (one byte) of data to encode a single character of text. There are one million bits of data in a megabit.

Slow internet speeds frequently hamper the ability of employees to work remotely, reduce the functionality of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, delay or halt access to large, data heavy electronic files, and interfere with video and music streaming services like Netflix and Spotify.

Most of the states ranking in the bottom 10-percent for internet service include large rural areas with low population densities. They include Wyoming, ranked 47th at 60.0 Mbps; Maine (48) at 56.3 Mbps; Idaho (49) 55.4 Mbps; West Virginia (50) with 55.2 Mbps; and bottoming out with Montana (51) at 54.4 Mbps.

Even remote and lightly populated Alaska ranked higher than Montana, coming in at number 46 with 61.5 Mbps – 13% faster than data transmission speeds in Big Sky Country.

However some rural states defied that model. Nevada, Washington and Colorado all ranked among the fastest 15 states with data transmission speeds greater than 103.4 Mbps.

The five states with the fastest internet service are all on the east coast and include the District of Columbia (5) at 117.7 Mbps; Maryland (4) 118.2 Mbps; Delaware (3) 119.1 Mbps; and New Jersey (2) 120.4 Mbps. Rhode Island has the fastest data transmission rate coming in at a blazing 129.0 Mbps – close to two and a half times as fast as internet service in Montana.

In recent years improving broadband internet access across rural America has become a bipartisan priority for many state and federal lawmakers. In March 2021 a group of four U.S. Senators including Joe Manchin (D – W. Virginia), Rob Portman (R – Ohio), Michael Bennet (D – Colo.) and Angus King (I – Maine), asked that the controlling federal agencies take immediate steps to deploy affordable, high-speed broadband across the country.

“Ask any senior who connects with their physician via telemedicine, any farmer hoping to unlock the benefits of precision agriculture, any student who receives livestreamed instruction, or any family where both parents telework and multiple children are remote learning, and they will tell you that many networks fail to come close to ‘high-speed’ in the year 2021,” they wrote in a letter to FCC’s acting chair, Jessica Rosenworcel.

Both Montana senators Steve Daines and Jon Tester have called repeatedly for improved internet service to rural areas. At a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee on April 20, Tester demanded that any infrastructure bill include significant investments to expand affordable broadband access.

“Twenty years ago I’m not sure broadband would have been part of any infrastructure bill – but things have changed,” Tester said. “This pandemic has pointed out that whether you want to do business, whether you want to do telehealth, or whether you want to do distance learning, broadband in pretty damn important… the bottom line is that any new broadband has to be targeted to rural areas that don’t have service or are underserved, and it has to be done in a way that gets results.”

Tester added that the effort must extend beyond simply spending money, pointing out that access to affordable broadband also requires accurate coverage maps, a well-trained workforce to install fiber optics, and carriers that are committed to expanding access in hard-to-reach areas.