Broadband Internet access should be on its way to thousands of rural Montana residents in the near future as the state Public Service Commission approved a settlement with telecommunications provider CenturyLink to address service equality violations.
Last month, the PSC filed a complaint in District Court accusing CenturyLink of violating a state law that requires 90 percent of out-of-service reports be fixed within 24 hours.
As a stipulation of the settlement, CenturyLink agreed to accept approximately $91 million over the next six years from the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund phase 2 for broadband infrastructure investment in rural Montana. CenturyLink also stated it will "augment" the CAF II funding with investments of it own to amplify the effects.
The PSC approved the settlement 4-0, with one abstention.
“It is a matter of public safety that all Montanans have access to reliable telecommunication services, and the agreement with CenturyLink is a major step in that direction,” said PSC chairman Brad Johnson, a Republican from East Helena. “In addition, the investment in broadband system development required by CenturyLink as a result of this agreement will connect thousands of rural Montanans to a modern communication infrastructure, a vital component to economic success in the 21st century.”
Commissioner Bob Lake, a Republican from Hamilton, said a modern broadband network is absolutely necessary to enable economic growth.
“This agreement is an important move toward bringing much needed broadband deployment to rural Montana, opening the door to opportunity for significant economic benefits in communities across the state,” he said.
The central components of the settlement agreement are:
• CenturyLink will receive more than $91 million over the next six years to deploy 10 megabit-per-second download and 1 megabit-per-second upload broadband to 33,000 high-cost rural locations in Montana. CenturyLink anticipates that the requirement to build out to 33,000 customers will give the company a “jumping-off point” to serve about 60,000 additional consumers.
• CenturyLink will prioritize the Cascade and Missouri River Canyon areas for broadband deployment.
• CenturyLink will implement a service improvement plan in Wibaux and Wolf Creek to fix chronic service problems in those areas.
• The PSC will close its investigation of CenturyLink service and won't pursue fines in District Court.
“Broadband infrastructure investment remains to be a very challenging issue in Montana due to our large geographical area and low population, which leaves a lot of economic potential around the state untapped,” said commissioner Kirk Bushman, a Billings Republican. “Our hands are tied in how the FCC distributes these funds, but we will continually look for opportunities within our purview to improve broadband networks across Montana.”
The settlement agreement was signed by the Missouri River Residents for Better Telecommunications Service, PSC advocacy staff and CenturyLink. The Montana Consumer Counsel was an active party to the proceeding, but declined to sign the settlement.
“This settlement is not perfect, but it accomplishes two objectives,” said PSC vice chairman Travis Kavulla, a Great Falls Republican. “First, it puts needed controls on a runaway program of federal subsidies. Second, it directs more than $90 million to rural areas where phone service has deteriorated over the years and the internet has been virtually non-existent.”
Commissioner Roger Koopman, a Republican from Bozeman, abstained in the vote.
“The marketplace, not subsidies, are the best way to address broadband needs in the long run, with pricing that reflects true cost,” he said. “Personally, I’m not of the opinion that just because you want something, government should force everyone else to pay for it.”
To view the service quality docket, visit 1.usa.gov/1JvrCEV.