Montana invests $2 million in broadband expansion for schools


Montana Gov. Steve Bullock joined officials and students from Woodman School in Lolo, Montana, to mark the approval of a $2 million investment that will help schools across the state to expand broadband service, giving students greater access to digital education.

The funding comes as part of House Bill 390, and will finance broadband infrastructure improvements over the next two years. The bill also helps establish a state funding match system with the Federal Communication Commission’s E-rate program which could unlock as much as $20 million to go towards broadband infrastructure, state officials said.

“Providing our students with access to high-quality digital learning helps set them up for success in our increasingly digital world,” Bullock said in a prepared statement.

“As a predominantly rural state, we need to work even harder to make sure that our students have the high-speed internet that they need to flourish. This investment is the result of collaboration between state government, the service provider and school communities, and will bring us even closer to closing the connectivity gap in our state’s schools,” he said.

Erin Lipkind, Missoula County superintendent of schools, says that this funding will be especially important for Woodman School, located within the county.

“Currently we have internet speeds as slow as 0.15 Mbps for uploading and 0.52 Mbps for downloading. We are expecting speeds of 100 times faster than that with this dedicated line,” Lipkind said.

Like many large and mostly rural states, Montana has had to overcome a number of hurdles to bring broadband to state residents. According to a 2015 report by the FCC, 87 percent of Montanans lacked access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps Broadband in 2015.

Efforts by the governor’s office, state legislators and others have helped expand internet accessibility, particularly in schools. In 2016, 90 percent of school districts in Montana met the FCC’s minimum connectivity goal of 100 kilobits per second (Kbps) per student, up from 78 percent in 2015.

It is now calculated that approximately 72.9 percent of Montana’s residents have access to wired broadband of 25 Mbps or faster.

Montana schooling advancements have been supported by advocacy from EducationSuperhighway, a leading nonprofit focused on upgrading the internet access across American public schools. Gov. Bullock initiated a relationship with the nonprofit in 2015 to provide enhanced broadband access to Montana schools.

“We’ve been working closely with Governor Bullock since 2015, and the signing of HB 390 into law is a huge step forward for the many schools in Montana that don’t have access to high-speed broadband,” said Evan Marwell, CEO at EducationSuperHighway. EducationSuperhighway is currently active in 20 states, directly assisting in allocating the $3.9 billion in FCC funding that goes towards the E-rate program.

“All of this is possible because of the FCC’s E-rate program that provides K-12 schools with the funding necessary to make high-speed broadband a reality. We are thrilled to see states across the country fully leveraging and counting on these provisions to continue to bring digital learning to all students,” said Marwell.

Since its establishment in 1996, the FCC E-rate has been used to provide access to vital telecommunications, internet access and information services infrastructure, among other services, to eligible schools and libraries.

“This has really been a group effort between the legislature, the governor’s office, EducationSuperhighway … it’s really been a mutual effort and I am very grateful for the support of the governor,” Lipkin said.