Fiber plan still loading

By the end of a presentation to city and county officials last month, two big questions about Missoula's broadband future were answered: How much fiber needs to be laid to connect the city's municipal and economic corridors to high-speed Internet (up to 55 miles), and how much it will cost (up to $9.1 million).

But a third question—who is going to do it?remained as uncertain as a spinning pinwheel cursor.

"I think that is the big question," Councilman Bryan von Lossberg said during the Feb. 17 meeting.

City leaders have been mulling a community fiber project since 2012 after local businesses said current options constrained economic growth and required an update. Using a mix of donations and public funds, the Bitterroot Economic Development District then commissioned a master plan for a business-ready, open access network. The plan, as outlined by former BREDD Executive Director Marcy Allen, calls for a nonprofit to install and manage a network that private providers can tap.

Completion of a network blueprint is encouraging to Russ Fletcher, founder of the Montana Associated Technology Roundtables, who sees fiber as a vital piece of infrastructure. He also notes that, to his Silicon Valley state of mind, the pace of progress has been slow.

"I know there are other communities that have started after we did and already have infrastructure in place now," Fletcher says.

One such community is Bozeman, where the first phase of construction is getting underway. Allen pointed out that once Bozeman's master plan was assembled, a Bozeman city staffer spent six months getting the project off the ground.

Observers say Missoula needs similar commitment to see the fiber plan through, regardless of where it comes from.

"I still think it's a function of leadership," says James Scott, a vice president for First Interstate Bank.

Von Lossberg, who has been pushing for the project on city council, says the various entities have yet to agree upon who will take responsibility for managing the project.

"We don't—right at this moment—have a shared vision of how precisely to move this project forward, and I'm going to keep working to try to build that vision," he says.

The role of taxpayers and current Internet providers who have installed fiber in parts of the city will also need hashing out. Scott says First Interstate is eager to help finance the network's build-out if planners can demonstrate it will be financially viable. He also wants to see city redevelopment funds put toward the project.

As fiber advocates look for a way forward, Missoula County Public Schools—one of the key entities included in the new master plan—is already staking out on its own. The district can't afford to wait indefinitely to upgrade its Internet, says technology director Hatton Littman, and it's currently interviewing three companies who bid to provide fiber. MCPS's fiber lines could potentially be stitched into a community network in the future, but regardless, Littman hopes construction will begin this summer.

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