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Report Highlights State’s Sluggish Broadband
Sluggish Internet speed a hinderance to statewide economy
Photo illustration by Steve Larson | Flathead Beacon
On the information super highway, Montana remains in the slow lane.

According to a recent analysis of national broadband rankings, conducted by a Kalispell-based software and broadband testing company, Montana is lagging behind in its Internet speed, which, once considered a convenience, is now increasingly viewed as an essential medium for delivering services like education and health care, and for promoting economic development.

The ranking is according to Ookla’s Net Index, a measure of Internet speed maintained by a company formed in Kalispell in 2006, and which now has offices in Seattle. Ookla’s software, available at Speedtest.net, allows users across the country to test Internet download speeds.

For the first half of last year, it found that Montana’s average download speed of 7.3 megabits per second falls well below the national average of 18.2 megabits per second (Mbps).

Conversely, the tiny town of Ephrata, Wash., which is home to just 7,664 residents, has the fastest broadband Internet in America with an average download speed of 85.5 Mbps — due in large part to the fact that Ephrata is home to iFiber Communications, a broadband company that covers four sparsely populated rural Washington counties.

The study found that Kansas City, which in 2011 was selected by Google for an experiment to bring high-speed Internet access to metro areas, ranked second at an average speed of 49.9 Mbps.

According to a map of Ookla’s geographic data, composed by the technology blog Gizmodo, Montana appears as a vast Internet black hole spanning the rural, rocky landscape between the tech-savvy Pacific Northwest and oil-rich North Dakota.

But it’s not for lack of trying.

The state of Montana is committed to developing a long-term strategy to increase broadband use in communities.

That’s because in the digital age, access to broadband is critical to run a school, a business or a hospital. Slipping in national broadband rankings can be a disadvantage not only to companies hamstrung by a sluggish Internet connection, but also in terms of attracting new businesses and start-ups that create jobs and propel the state’s economy.

In 2012, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., called on the President to encourage rural broadband Internet access after the Federal Communications Commission rolled out its plan to reform the way resources are allocated and invested in broadband infrastructure.

Tester said the FCC should “rethink” its plan because broadband investment in rural communities is proven to create jobs.

“Access to broadband internet services means access to bigger markets for Montana’s small businesses and new jobs on Main Street,” Tester said in a letter to President Obama. “I encourage you to make sure any national plan doesn’t discriminate against Montana and rural America.”

According to a 2011 report by the Montana Broadband Program, which held a series of regional meetings around the state to identify broadband issues and map out Internet speeds, high-speed circuits are considerably more expensive in Montana than in California and other states, a disparity that acts as a barrier to attracting high-tech businesses and is expensive for smaller providers to backhaul traffic out of state.

The report identified 2,095 structures in Flathead and Lincoln Counties located outside of broadband provider service areas. The structures are mostly concentrated in remote areas like the Yaak Rivers, the North Fork Flathead River and the Hungry Horse area.

“Montana is such a rural state that we aren’t going to have the same infrastructure as an urban area, so that puts us at a disadvantage,” Kathleen McMahon, who founded the Whitefish-based Applied Communications, a broadband consulting firm, said.

The Montana Broadband Program is funded through the State Broadband Data and Development program. The project, in collaboration with the Montana Department of Administration, was originally funded for broadband planning activities and two years of data collection but was extended for an additional three years in order to identify best practices for expanding broadband in Montana.

McMahon founded Applied Communications in 1994 and has focused on helping rural areas plan for broadband technologies. She said the Flathead Valley, where the telecommunications giant CenturyLink offers Fiber to the Premises (FTTP), has a relatively strong technology infrastructure compared with much of the rest of the state.

Still, cost remains an issue.

“Even though we have good infrastructure in the Flathead, we can’t compete with a Los Angeles or a San Francisco as far as cost. It’s that urban-rural divide,” McMahon said.

Surprisingly, given its remote location, the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation offers some of the fastest Internet in the state. Triangle Communications provides Rocky Boy residents with Fiber to the Home (FTTH) connection, a service that is not available in the Flathead Valley.

At a time when online activity is ubiquitous in schools, businesses, hospitals and local government, McMahon said a robust broadband circuit is critical.

“Broadband is needed for Montana to be globally competitive. It’s needed just to provide basic services,” McMahon said. “In every aspect, from work to education to health care, Internet is just becoming essential and the broadband demand is increasing exponentially.”

“If a business is an information or a knowledge-based industry, they are going to deliver their services electronically over the Internet,” she continued. “In the Flathead, there are a lot of people who telecommute, people who are working for Fortune 500 companies and they are living in the Flathead.”

In 2012, CenturyLink, Inc. received $1.9 million to provide rural broadband Internet service in rural areas of Montana. The Federal Communications Commission, which provided the money through its Connect America Fund, said the money will help provide high-speed Internet service to 6,300 residents who lacked access. The agency reported that more than 55 percent of the state’s rural population, or about 245,000 people, lacked such access.

CenturyLink must complete two-thirds of its new broadband commitments within two years, and the remainder by the third year. The FCC says it hope to connect 19 million people living in rural areas of the U.S. with high-speed Internet access by 2020.

John Bemis, market development manager for CenturyLink, said the company has made more than 158 “investments” in locations since 2011, either by deploying new broadband services or through upgrades to existing services, like adding fiber optic cable to improve speeds.

He said many of the improvements were due to the funding through the Connect America Fund, and that CenturyLink is capable of serving 85 percent of the households within its footprint.

“The need for broadband is becoming a more important part of our lives. There is definitely a growing need for the faster and faster speeds so as we progress in Montana our main focus and goal is to be able to provide those speeds that are necessary to keep up.”

Kellie Danielson, president and CEO of the Montana West Economic Development Authority, said the state’s access to high-speed Internet is even more important given its remoteness.

“It’s another avenue of transportation, it’s another avenue of infrastructure,” she said. “It’s a way for a business to launch and grow and not be reliant on the highway system, but be reliant on the broadband system, because we are isolated from major markets.

Having that broadband capacity is the one infrastructure that can connect us globally.”
 
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