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Cloudy skies early, then partly cloudy this afternoon. High 31F. Winds SSW at 5 to 10 mph..
Cloudy skies. Low 19F. Winds S at 10 to 20 mph.
Updated: December 24, 2021 @ 10:07 am
The Gallatin County Commission moved into the next step of partnering with a local fiber optic cable company to bring faster internet to the county.
The commission this week unanimously approved moving on to a public hearing for Bozeman Fiber’s proposal of an expansive fiber optic internet cable project. Money for the project would come from $65 million worth of bonds that the county would issue on the company’s behalf.
But taxpayers in the county would not be left to foot the bill.
This bond issue would act in the same way as a previous bond issue made by the commission on behalf of Bridger Aerospace in October 2020. Local government agencies, like the county commission, can issue bonds on behalf of businesses, like Bozeman Fiber, to secure funding for projects, according to state law.
“It conduits through us,” said Gallatin County Commissioner Joe Skinner. “We sponsor it, and there’s really no liability — or any kind of liability — to the county. They sell their bonds and if they can’t pay it back, that’s on them.”
The project needs to make its way through the public hearing, which is set for Oct. 5. Then the bonds will be sold, and from there bids will go out for contractors to install the cable, said CEO of Bozeman Fiber Greg Metzger. The company already has around 28 miles of fiber optic cable in the ground, and this project could expand on that.
The Bozeman urban area — which Metzger called “the base of the pyramid” for the project — would be the focus at first. Cable would be added in sections, and the actual installation of cable could be done by boring it underground or attaching it to telephone poles.
In order to get fiber optic cable out to the more rural areas of the county, Bozeman Fiber has to generate revenue from subscribers to start paying off the bonds it acquires through the county, with payments beginning three years after the bonds are sold. Around 8,500 households paying subscriber fees for the fiber optic service — like internet access — is the benchmark to begin paying back the bonds, Metzger said.
The project would allow for broadband speeds between 250 megabits per second and 10 gigabits per second.
The Federal Communication Commission requires that broadband services have a minimum speed of 25 Mbps for downloads, and 5 Mbps for uploads. Netflix requires 25 Mbps for streaming in 4K.
Just over 14 million Americans — or about 4.26% of the population — don’t have access to broadband with the required speeds, according to a January report from the FCC. Roughly 83% of people in rural areas were connected to services that meet the broadband benchmark.
Montana is one of the worst-ranked states when it comes to download speeds, access to broadband and low-price internet plans, according to a report from Broadband Now. The average download speed in the state is about 81 Mbps, while the fastest state, Maryland, has an average of 196 Mbps.
“In theory, and in reality, this will be a world-class fiber optic network,” Metzger said. “There’s not going to be very many places in the U.S. that are going to have what we’re going to offer.”
Bozeman Fiber is an open network, which means that it installs the cable, and a provider brings the service. The company has six providers, but could add more once the project is complete.
A Utah-based open network company, UTOPIA Fiber, is in talks to partner with Bozeman Fiber on the logistical side of the project. Kimberly McKinely, the Chief Marketing Officer for UTOPIA Fiber, said the company would help Bozeman Fiber with the bond repayment model and bids for construction.
McKinley said that the company is the largest open network in the country, and has done roughly $330 million in projects. UTOPIA Fiber is in the process of paying back bonds, but have not completed payment on any to date.
“With the success that UTOPIA has seen, we’ve seen a lot of entities reach out to us to figure out the secret sauce of what we’re doing,” McKinley said.
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Alex Miller is the county and state government reporter and can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 406-582-2648.
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