Bozeman prepares to launch broadband master plan


BOZEMAN, Mont. - The state is moving forward with its plan to bolster high-speed internet across Montana.

Governor Steve Bullock recently nominated two co-chairs for the Broadband Communications Steering Committee.

Bill Squires, from Blackfoot Telecommunications in Missoula, and Rob Ferris, from Vision Net in Great Falls, will head the committee, which will work with Bullock's Main Street Montana project.

That project began in May of last year and aims to start, attract and grow businesses.

A big part of that is working toward economic development through high-speed internet access.

Bozeman is ahead of the curve, working for years to move forward with its own efforts to increase the availability of affordable high-speed internet to local businesses.

The city's Bozeman Broadband Initiative will soon launch a master planning phase. NBC Montana met with city officials to break down exactly what that means.

Bozeman Economic Development Specialist David Fine has spent the better part of two years working to improve the quality of Bozeman broadband for businesses.

Fine told us, "People either don't have access to the kind of broadband that they need to run their business or their school or their hospital, or that is incredibly expensive."

The Bozeman Broadband Initiative aims to create an infrastructure of high-speed, affordable broadband to aid in the city's economic development.

Fine tells US private companies can use the city's broadband infrastructure to offer their services, not unlike UPS or FedEx using public roadways.

"They can use those assets to provide service to the end user at a lower cost," explained Fine.

Fine says lowering the costs of high-speed fiber-optic internet, capable of delivering more data, faster, will make it easier for startups offering high-paying high-tech jobs to come to town.

"You shouldn't have to choose between paying for the internet and hiring a new employee," said Fine.

It's a concern that's been raised by businesses before, says Executive Director of the Downtown Bozeman Partnership Chris Nauman, "Just an overall speed issue. People need more capacity for uploading and downloading."

Naumann has heard stories of local businesses unable to properly operate with the current broadband offered. He says the Downtown Finance District donated $10,000 toward the initative's master planning, calling it a crucial investment for downtown Bozeman's economy.

"Employees will enjoy the work environment downtown but then, in turn, support the businesses downtown, so it really is a full-circle investment," said Naumann.

With Montana cities like Butte and Missoula currently moving forward with master planning and implementation of similar projects, Fine hopes that Bozeman-area government can use over $300,000 a year it spends on broadband to eventually improve and connect to a Montana network.

"Broadband is essential to the success of Montana," said Fine, "Because it really removes geography as a constraint for businesses and individuals."

The Bozeman Broadband Initiative is broken into three phases: The Master Planning Phase will begin July 17, and is expected to last 6 months to a year. During that time developers will nail down an exact cost for the project and make sure it's economically feasible.

Depending on the outcome, a plan may be brought to the Bozeman City Commission to adopt. More funds would then be raised to begin the engineering phase.

That's when major data users like government buildings, schools and hospitals will be connected. That process could take another 6 months to a year.

Once that's complete, the project will move to the deployment phase. That's when all area businesses will be connected. That portion of the project is ongoing.