Broadband

The Bitter Root Economic Development District has hired a Virginia-based technology firm to complete a master plan creating an open-access broadband network in Missoula.

The Bitter Root Economic Development District has hired a Virginia-based technology firm to complete a master plan creating an open-access broadband network in Missoula.

The plan, under development by Design Nine, will suggest ways to pay for the system, how it should operate and who will claim ownership. A draft is expected by October and the early steps of implementation could begin the following year.

“We handed over everything from our feasibility study,” said Marcy Allen, executive director of BREDD. “They’ve had meetings with education, business, local government and health care. They’ve been meeting with some of the individuals from those groups to understand their exact needs.”

Efforts to build an open-access, high-speed broadband network in Missoula began in 2012 when members of the public and private sectors began looking for ways to retain, grow and attract businesses.

In 2013, BREDD hired Magellan Advisors to conduct a feasibility study, which it completed last July. The study recommended self-financing a 60-mile network offering open access to Missoula schools, businesses, health care and government.

To reach the next step, BREDD received a $25,000 Big Sky Trust Fund grant, along with donations from area banks, high-tech businesses and foundations, to hire a consultant to create a master plan guiding implementation.

“We got significant support from the private sector, the banks and health care,” said Allen. “It’s becoming more and more relevant as a basic piece of infrastructure. Missoula has so many assets as far as intellectual talent, and this is a way for us to do commerce.”

With the money in place, a selection committee of city and county leaders, Missoula County Public Schools officials and local businesses reviewed eight applications from firms vying to create the plan.

Design Nine has drafted similar open-access networks in other states, including the New Hampshire FastRoads network. Allen said the firm’s experience with financial modeling and projections stood out.

The design contract is valued at roughly $45,000.

“They had great experience in multiple cities and worked on open access fiber networks now paying back to city coffers without using taxpayer dollars,” said Allen. “They also came in with a team of local subcontractors. We like that combination of local knowledge of our community.”

While the nuances of creating an open-access system in Missoula will be detailed in the Design Nine plan, the need for high-speed broadband has become a cornerstone of economic growth in the 21st century.

Allen said that while Missoula has a “lot of fiber in the ground,” it’s akin to a store built within view of the interstate without an offramp. Solving the “last mile” dilemma – or connecting local businesses to existing fiber – remains one of the project’s top goals.

“I feel really good about the project,” said Allen. “Open-access systems have been implemented long enough that there are best practices we can follow. We’re coming in at the right time. There have been lessons learned in other places.”

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