Martin Kidston

Efforts to build a next-generation broadband system in Missoula are moving forward as proponents work to generate the $80,000 needed to fund a network master plan.

But comments that ran through a listserv last week shed light on how far behind Missoula is falling in the broadband race, and what it stands to lose if it doesn’t catch.

If you care about economic growth and good-paying jobs, you’ll want to read further.

Last week, City Councilman Jason Wiener posted a daily briefing to the city’s listserv. In it, he noted what many close to the issue have been saying all along: Bozeman is three steps ahead of Missoula in the broadband race.

“They have an economic development office in city government spearheading it,” Wiener wrote. “We haven’t had much interest from Missoula Economic Partnership, though Bitterroot Economic Development District has been integral in getting us where we are. Still, there isn’t the staff energy behind the effort here that there is in Bozeman, and it shows in our progress toward improving competition and pricing.”

So what, you might say. You can still download “Breaking Bad” on Netflix, or surf the Web on your laptop while sitting at the local coffee shop or your home office.

But it’s not that simple.

During a Missoula County commissioners’ meeting recently, Marcy Allen – who’s spearheading the effort with BREDD – quoted the governor of Oregon, who compared modern cities without 10 megabytes of broadband to cities in 1915 without electricity or paved roads.

In other words, not having broadband has become an enormous economic disadvantage. Just how much so was summarized in the local listserv posting by Paul Wheaton, a local software engineer and blogger.

“I have visited with dozens of mega-geeks that were thinking of setting up shop away from the big city, and broadband options are the first thing they look into,” he said. “Same thing goes with people doing video work – that requires a lot of bandwidth. Missoula just doesn’t make the cut.”

Wheaton said he’s been approached by “three different executives” who wanted to launch “massive software engineering shops” in Missoula. By doing that in the Garden City, they could provide their employees a quality of life not offered in many other places.

But the lack of bandwidth here was a deal-breaker, he said. Even surfable rivers and wilderness couldn’t compensate for our general lack of next-generation broadband service.

“I also know some major software engineers looking to work remotely that went with towns other than Missoula because of bandwidth,” Wheaton added. “Missoula would be the ultimate town for all these folks, if it had the bandwidth. But it doesn’t. So it isn’t.”

Over the past six months, Missoula County Public Schools has stated repeatedly its need for reliable broadband. It currently pays more for less service than districts in Helena and Great Falls pay for good service.

If Wiener is correct in saying Missoula lacks the energy to push the project forward and faster (and that’s a shame if it’s true), then we’re lucky there’s a stalwart few who do have the energy and want to see this take place.

Many of them have contributed to the $80,000 pool that's needed to get the master plan done. The ALPS Corp. also volunteered its services to create a consolidated map of available Internet services.

And Allen continues to spearhead the effort on behalf of BREDD. As you can guess, she found the same listserv and added her thoughts to the string.

“Since our Next Generation Broadband project started, we now have three downtown office buildings with available fiber – the Florence, the Radio Building and Millennial Building,” she wrote. “I believe that many initiatives in town are heading us in the right direction, but sometimes the process is slower than we like.”

Slow doesn't help much when you're competing against other cities. With jobs and economic growth as the prize, I'm betting Missoula catches its second wind and sees the project over the top. 

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