Our General Manager/CEO attended the Montana High Tech Jobs Summit earlier this month in Missoula, where attendees heard from speakers including FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and Microsoft’s President & Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith.  The overwhelming theme of the event was the importance of broadband services, and the perception that most of Montana – especially Eastern Montana – is without broadband access.  The statistics show that 30% of Montana residents have no access to broadband, so they must all be in the small towns and rural areas, right?

Wrong.  And more wrong all the time, as Montana’s Cooperative telecommunications providers ramp up our investment in broadband.  While the nation’s largest providers focus on enterprise customers and NFL cities, building fiber in places like Denver and Phoenix, Montana’s cooperatives are building – or have already built – fiber broadband in places like Baker, Roundup, Circle, Ekalaka, Fallon, Winnett, Savage, Ryegate, Scobey, Chester, and many more.  And for some time prior to our Fiber to the Home (FTTH) build-outs, most of us were already offering high-speed Internet services to every incorporated town, every K-12 School, and every hospital in our service areas.  We were also the first to provide broadband to schools in another provider’s service area, and now offer them Gigabit connections (Glendive, Miles City, Sidney, Lewistown, Fairview, Wibaux).  Yet comments like the one below are common, and even many of those who live in these areas don’t yet understand the value of what they have:

“We can’t lose sight of the fact that the digital divide is about real people.  Each percentage point on the wrong side of the divide represents hundreds of thousands of personal stories – stories of families struggling in small towns to expand digital opportunity.” – Ajit Pai, FCC Chairman

It is absolutely about real people, which is why Cooperatives like Mid-Rivers do what we do every day for our members.  But there is a public misconception that most “small towns” lack broadband access.  I’m sure that many small towns across the U.S. do, but for the most part they are NOT in areas of Montana served by Cooperatives.  There is a good chance you can get better broadband in the town of Baker today (population 1,900), than you can on the outskirts of Billings, Bozeman or Helena.  And what you can get in Baker is at least as fast and possibly faster than what is available right in the heart of the “Big 6” Montana cities.

So, while it may be true that 30% of Montanans lack access, that entire 30% is NOT in rural Eastern Montana, and Montana’s Cooperatives are working hard to close the gap that remains.  There are definitely real people, families, students, farm and ranch businesses and others in remote rural parts of our service area that still lack access – we hear from them every day.  But we started our fiber build-out plan in 2016 with about 7,800 of our customers lacking access, and by the end of 2017 construction we will have reduced that number by almost half – down to about 4,200.  Using rough math, these unserved residents in our area make up less than half of one percent of Montanans (0.4%).  It is also worth noting that this 0.4% are spread out over a land area that encompasses twenty percent (20%) of the state’s land area.  So when you hear about the Digital Divide, don’t assume that every rural area and small town is at a disadvantage – go to your local provider(s) and get the facts!

Here’s a quick list of all the “small towns” in the Mid-Rivers service area that have or will have broadband access meeting the current FCC standard of at least 25M/3M throughout the town (and in nearly all cases to additional locations outside of town) by the end of our 2017 construction:

  • Baker
  • Circle
  • East Fairview, ND
  • Ekalaka
  • Fairview
  • Fallon
  • Glendive
  • Jordan
  • Lambert
  • Lewistown
  • Miles City
  • Plevna
  • Richey
  • Roundup
  • Ryegate
  • Savage
  • Sidney
  • Terry
  • Wibaux
  • Winnett

Continuing with our logical and fair plan designed to get to as many cooperative members as possible, we will take the 4,200 unserved customers number down a lot further over the next few years.  We are making real progress by sticking to The PlanFor those remaining 4,200, we understand that you need broadband now and that waiting as long as eight more years doesn’t seem feasible.  We hope you can understand that without your Cooperative service provider and the nearly $100 Million in Federal Funding that will help make this build-out possible, satellite would be your only option for the foreseeable future.  Unfortunately, that may be the case for many Montanans who are not lucky enough to be served by Cooperatives.

Have I said the word “Cooperative” enough times in this post yet?  Happy Co-Op Month!!!

One thought on “The Digital Divide: Perception & Reality

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