The importance of having access to high-speed broadband Internet has never been greater for Montana students. When they graduate and enter the job market, they will need a deep knowledge of technology and the ability to learn new skills quickly. Technology is increasingly used in all aspects of student learning.
Educators in Montana have made it a priority that our schools have first-rate access to Internet. A real gap exists today between students who have access to all the Internet has to offer, and those who live in areas that are lagging behind. This is a problem prevalent across the country, but more so in rural Montana than nearly any other state. Currently, high schools in Missoula County, Woodman School District, and Shields Valley School District have fiber projects that have been denied due to federal red tape.
As expected, the lack of broadband Internet access is concentrated in rural areas—in Montana, 41 percent of rural residents don’t have broadband Internet access, in urban areas that figure is less than 8 percent.
However, the Federal Communications Commission is exploring other options for service. One of the technologies the FCC is considering is known as TV white space, which delivers broadband Internet over television spectrums. At scale, white space towers could deliver broadband to some of the areas too expensive to reach by fiber optics.
Though TV white space has been around for nearly a decade and deployed on smaller scales in test areas around the country, it is not yet available for full consumer use. The FCC is considering new rules which could provide Montana internet service providers access to a resource which could offer expanded broadband Internet service.
There is no silver bullet that will fix broadband access in Montana, which is why it is necessary to encourage all creative ways to improve access. A big thank you to Montana’s telecommunications co-ops, broadcasters, and internet service providers for the work they’ve done and continue to do in serving our students and families. Montanans must continue to advocate for broadband Internet access in education. The success of our students depends on it.
The Office of Public Instruction is working with multiple stakeholders to ensure that our schools have access to broadband internet and that federal red tape isn’t getting in the way of our students’ ability to learn.
Elsie Arntzen is Montana State Superintendent.