Broadband in Montana is getting better compared to other states, but only at a slow creep.
One year ago, Montana was ranked among the "bottom of the barrel" in the United States when it came to broadband performance, according to an online publication called Stop the Cap!
Stop the Cap! bills itself as an advocate for better broadband and fighting data caps, among other issues. It cited a ranking from Net Index that put Montana among the bottom three states.
This year, Montana inched up the Net Index ladder. A "real time" chart ranks Montana as 43rd out of 51 states and districts.
Net Index names Washington as the top performing state.
In Missoula, longtime technology advocate and entrepreneur Alex Philp said he has seen no significant improvement in Montana, despite some attention to the topic. He said cost is the key to improving access.
In Austin, Texas, the cost of one gigabit is $70, he said – compared with $1,200 to $2,000 in Montana. Net Index ranks Austin as the second best city for broadband performance, behind Kansas City, Missouri.
"Am I going to locate in Missoula or am I going to locate in Boulder, in Austin?" Philp said founders of technology start-up companies will ask themselves.
"No one is paying attention to the economics," Philp said. "That's what is killing the innovation. It's about availability vis-à-vis affordability.
"If you can't afford it, is it actually available?"
Philp, who is leading the University of Montana's big-data initiative and has founded various high-tech businesses in Missoula, called on Gov. Steve Bullock to work on the problem, and he called on local leaders who are working on broadband and economic development to pick up the pace.
Otherwise, he said, they compromise innovation and a strong economy.
"I think that's bad from an economic development perspective, and I wish the economic development folks would work more aggressively," Philp said.
Missoula City Councilman Mike O'Herron, also an advocate for technology in Montana, agreed that Internet access is a problem, and said the city and county are collaborating with the private sector on a fix.
He said local leaders are working with those in Bozeman, Butte and the governor's office to "create more high-paying jobs that allow people to stay and thrive here."
"Missoula's businesses and K-12 schools are at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to access to affordable, fast and reliable Internet," O'Herron said.
On Wednesday, Charter Communications spokesman Brian Anderson said in recent months, Charter completed an "all-digital" project to improve service in the mountain states.
He characterized the improvement of base Internet speeds – from 30 mbps on average to 60 mbps – as "significant."
"We have doubled our Internet speeds just in recent months," Anderson said.
He said it's important to note the current improvement comes after another recent doubling of the service provider's average speed.
"Of course Internet speed is something that's important to us. We know it's important to our customer," Anderson said.