A critical Skype call fails for the owner of a small business.
The small business might not be able to afford a faster Internet connection.
The faster connection might not go all the way to the building.
Or the Internet provider told the business owner – erroneously – that a higher speed wasn’t available.
“If Missoula wants to be a hub in the Northern Rockies for high-tech companies and the industries that are targeted by MEP (Missoula Economic Partnership) and BREDD, we need to create not only the reality but also the image that we are a fiber-rich community,” said Marcy Allen, executive director of the BitterRoot Economic Development District.
On Monday, BREDD and consultant John Honker with Magellan Advisors of Denver, Colo., presented recommendations from a feasibility study of “next-generation broadband” to members of the Missoula City Council and Board of County Commissioners. Honker and Allen also shared highlights from the study prior to the meeting.
In short, some 73 percent of small businesses in Missoula say Internet disruptions have had a major impact on their operations, according to the study. But providers say service is available.
“Whether this is a perceived deficiency or an actual deficiency, it really doesn’t matter,” Allen said. “We sort of all need to come to the table and fix it. That includes a collaborative effort from economic development, the city and county, and the providers.”
Inside the city, Missoula has “significant” infrastructure already in place, but outside the city, it’s “sparse in most areas,” Honker said in the presentation to council. Yet he said fiber infrastructure is just as important in a city as good roads – and it’s critical to Missoula’s economic development goals.
“It’s becoming that fundamental and that impactful in communities,” Honker said. “It really is pervasive in everything that we do.”
A study survey asked companies why they don’t upgrade their services when they need faster speeds: 42 percent said prices were too high; 42 percent said services weren’t available; and 13 percent said they didn’t know the options.
Sometimes, companies remained in the dark even after asking providers for help, Honker said: “They’re not able to get a straight answer on what services are available.”
The study outlined low-cost, low-risk changes Missoula could make as well as more aggressive strategies (see a summary of recommendations below). As Missoula considers its options, Honker stressed that partnerships are the key to moving forward.
“The most successful communities that have next-generation broadband in them completed it through public-private partnerships,” Honker said.
At the meeting, members of the public echoed the concern that cost is prohibitive. And they said the city permitting fees in particular are a barrier.
Jay Preston, CEO of Ronan Telephone Co., said the permitting process in the city requires a $3,000 fee per buried section, so if a company bores under three streets, it pays $9,000 alone in permits.
“I think that’s a significant disincentive for carriers to invest when they have to spend that much before they can even start doing anything,” Preston said.
Alex Philp, the owner of a small, high-tech business, also stressed the need for affordability and access. His company switched providers – and got 25 percent more availability for the same price.
“That allowed me to compete more effectively in going after contracts,” said Philp, who also asked the council to take the lead moving forward.
The study came out of the work of the economic development subcommittee of the Missoula City Council. Councilwoman Caitlin Copple, who chaired the committee, invited the public to a meeting 4 p.m. Tuesday, April 22, in Council Chambers, to talk about policy recommendations.
Copple said she agreed permitting fees don’t offer incentives, and she wants to come up with concrete referrals that move the project forward.
“The point of this is to have a conversation and to get a better handle on what Missoula can do to make sure we’re as competitive as we can be so we can bring high-paying jobs to our community and support businesses that are doing that already,” Copple said.
The executive summary included recommendations for policymakers, city and county officials, and economic development groups. Among them:
• Develop comprehensive broadband standards that can be incorporated into city or county land development code, promoting lower cost of broadband infrastructure construction in conjunction with city and county capital projects.
• Streamline the broadband permitting process within public rights of way to ensure broadband providers do not face obstacles to building infrastructure. Evaluate and reduce permitting fees to lower broadband provider construction costs in the city and county.
• Develop joint trenching agreements with utility companies and broadband providers to reduce the cost of broadband infrastructure installation.
• Educate and partner with local developers to ensure new buildings or retrofits are equipped with basic broadband infrastructure to reach the property line.
• Record built broadband infrastructure into city and county GIS systems.
• In cooperation with Missoula’s service providers, develop a program to educate the community regarding available broadband services. City and county economic development should connect current and prospective businesses with local providers.
• Identify broadband adoption and infrastructure programs at the state and federal levels that will allow Missoula to expand the broadband in the region.
• Work with Missoula’s service providers using public/private partnerships to access available funding, especially in rural and unincorporated areas.
• Identify key broadband infrastructure investments that the city or county may make to expand broadband access into the community. Through public/private partnerships with Missoula’s service providers, identify areas of need in the community that could use a public funding source.
The study was funded by Missoula County, the city of Missoula, and the Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund.
Reach Keila Szpaller at @keilaszpaller, at email@example.com or at (406) 523-5262.