USDA Funds $30 Million for Broadband in Rural Montana

The funding is roughly 40 percent of a four-state telecommunications loan package to improve broadband service in rural America.

by Tom Lutey, Billings Gazette, Mont. / July 21, 2015

(TNS) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture committed $30 million Monday to improving high-speed Internet service in rural Montana.

The loan, awarded to Triangle Telephone Cooperative, was roughly 40 percent of a four-state telecommunications loan package to improve broadband service in rural America. Triangle is a 16-county central Montana cooperative that stretches from Montana’s Canadian border to Wyoming.

Cooperatives, first created 80 years ago to provide phone and electricity to customers that utility companies deemed too expensive to serve, have been critical to bringing high-speed Internet to rural areas.

“They are the vehicle in the announcements we’re making today,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Gazette. “It’s a vehicle and methodology that we support and understand, and helped establish.”

Since 2009, Montana cooperatives have split more than $165 million in low-interest USDA loans to improve rural broadband service in Montana, not including American Indian reservations, which have benefited from federal grant programs.

Indian reservations have been the primary recipients of Community Connect Grants, a $32 million program for improving broadband service.

Roughly 98 percent of Americans have high-speed Internet access, Vilsack said, but the 2 percent who don’t lack the businesses, opportunities and health care advantages that urbanites take for granted.

The USDA has delivered or improved broadband access for 1.5 million Americans since 2009. Vilsack said he would like to see the number of people helped by the program surpass 3 million by the end of President Barack Obama’s second term in January 2017.

The first funding for improving rural broadband service came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a 2009 spending bill heavy with infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy. Funding from the 2009 law still circulates through the USDA program.

Triangle Telephone Cooperative, based in Havre, will use the loan to lay Internet fiber in regions anchored by Gilford, Hingham, Kremlin, Loma, Rudyard and Winifred. Those areas currently rely on copper wire delivery for Internet speeds of 3 to 12 megabytes, said Denise Kovacich, Triangle spokeswoman. The new fiber-optic cable will boost speeds as high as 100 megabytes.

Last week, Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester prodded the USDA Rural Utility Service (RUS) and Federal Communications Commission to better coordinate policy decisions affecting rural broadband services. In the 2015 Agriculture Appropriations bill, the lawmakers instructed RUS to optimize the use of its limited resources.

©2015 the Billings Gazette (Billings, Mont.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.