$3.3 million USDA grant to fund broadband expansion

Jackson, Grant areas to get high-speed internet
Wednesday, February 26, 2020
$3.3 million USDA grant to fund broadband expansion

Grant award U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development State Director Charles Robison, right, presents Southern Montana Telephone Owner Robert "Bob" Helming with a plaque representing a $3.3 million grant from the USDA Rural Development ReConnect program on Monday. The grant will help SMT expand high-speed internet access to the Jackson and Grant areas. Casey S. Elliott photo

WISDOM – Jackson and Grant area residents will soon have an option for high speed fiber internet access with the assistance of a federal connectivity grant to Southern Montana Telephone(SMT) Company.

SMT received a $3.3 million grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Development ReConnect program. The funds, combined with a $1.1 million match from SMT, will pay for a fiber-to-the-home infrastructure project for high-speed internet access to residents and businesses in the Jackson and Grant areas. The 1,688-square-mile service area includes 109 households, 26 farms and ranches, seven businesses and the Grant Fire Station.

SMT Owner Robert “Bob” Helming told a gathering of county and area government officials, residents, business community members, USDA Rural Development State Director Charles Robison and Montana U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte their company could not expand broadband service without the additional funding. The remarks were made at a Monday grant award ceremony in Wisdom.

“It’s always been my ambition to have a world class-type communication system. We’ve been pecking away at it (fiber) since 1992,” he said. “The only way to do this is through the help of USDA, through the grant system that helps us finish the toughest parts of our project.”

It is estimated to cost $30,000 per mile to extend fiber optic, high-speed internet service, Montana Telecommunications Association General Manager Geoff Feiss said. Rural areas are particularly difficult because of the few residents per square mile in the coverage area.

“The purpose of these programs is to help companies like Southern Montana Telephone provide investments in areas that just don’t make sense economically, when you have less than one household per square mile,” he said.

Donna Hildreth of Hildreth Livestock said her family and their ranch will immediately benefit from this broadband expansion. The last broadband improvement brought the fiber optic line seven miles short of their property, and this new grant will extend it the rest of the way.

Hildreth said she has a rough time updating the ranch’s website because of the slow DSL line to their home; and they have difficulty getting their children homeschooled due to the slow connection.

High-speed internet is important for a number of issues, not just business, Gianforte said. He specifically referenced the availability of “telemedicine,” or ways to connect rural residents with medical providers for a variety of health care needs.

“While access to broadband flourished over the last decade, too many communities are not connected. The numbers don’t always pencil out, which is why we need these grants,” he said. “One in three Montanans still lack access to broadband, and the disparity is much worse in rural communities. There’s a lot of attention on 5G these days, but when living in a community when you don’t even have 1G, it doesn’t matter how many Gs you have.”

Robison said this was the only Montana grantee for this round of funding, and he hoped to see more applications for the next round.

“Reliable broadband is critical to the prosperity of rural Montana. When rural Montana prospers, all of Montana prospers,” Robison said. “We know this will be a great project for the people living and working in Beaverhead County.”