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It’s as critical to a community’s success as good roads and running water.

Jane Doe gets tired of seeing her Netflix “buffering” all the time.

And business people who are, say, building maps may need to transfer mountains of data really quickly.

It’s a mouthful: “Gigabit speed, high-capacity fiber broadband infrastructure.”

“There’s all kinds of evidence to support that when you have fiber to the premises, it’s a job creator in your community,” said Missoula City Councilwoman Caitlin Copple.

But how much more infrastructure does Missoula need? What will it cost? Who will pay?

In partnership with the city and the county, the Bitter Root Economic Development District has selected a community broadband consultant to answer those questions and more with support from a Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund grant from the Montana Department of Commerce.

“We think this is as important as any infrastructure, whether we’re talking water, roads or sewer. It’s the basis for any kind of economic development,” said Marcy Allen, executive director for BREDD, the federally designated economic development district for Ravalli, Mineral and Missoula counties.

The grant provides up to $50,000 for the work, including a $25,000 contribution the city and county will share. To do the job, BREDD selected Magellan Advisors out of six qualified applicants because Magellan has a record of not only creating plans but “working with communities from start to finish.”

“We didn’t want some dream scenario that they were going to pitch us that was never going to pass muster with incumbent providers or the public or the city,” Allen said. “We wanted something that was realistic and achievable.”

The contract is being finalized, but as planned, Magellan likely will complete the study before the end of the year. Allen said the advisers will present their findings to any interested stakeholders, and they also plan to reach out to anyone who has the need for broadband as part of the process.

Magellan also has a history of working well with companies that are already providing services, Allen said. Also, Copple said she doesn’t want to see the city own a broadband utility, but she does see room for public investment to develop or maintain infrastructure as the city moves forward.

And it’s a good time to be charging down this path, Copple said. Already, one in five Americans has fiber to the premises, either at home or at work, and that means Missoula has best practices it can follow, examples of failures to avoid and models of successes to emulate.

“I really think that this is the wave of the future and the direction our state and our city should be going,” Copple said. “And Bozeman is copying us.”

The project came about after the Missoula City Council’s Economic Development Subcommittee surveyed technology companies in Missoula and learned business leaders see a need for “extreme broadband” at an affordable price, Copple said.

Several years ago, BREDD pursued a grant for a similar study without success, but it landed the money this time around, and Allen said the fact that Bozeman is embarking on a similar project indicates the industry is a priority for the state.

“It says Montana is focusing on high tech,” Allen said.

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Reach Keila Szpaller at @keilaszpaller, at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5262.

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