After smaller companies seeking federal money for broadband expansion across Montana were critical of an initial application ranking report that indicated nearly half of the first round of awards could go to the largest telecommunications provider in the state, the applications and how they were rated will get another look.
During a Monday meeting of the advisory committee formed by the Legislature to decide how to spend millions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act, chairman and state Sen. Jason Ellsworth made an unopposed motion to give state ARPA Director Scott Mendenhall full access to all the applications and the ability to review how they were scored the first time around.
Applications were given points based on a criteria developed by the commission, and the resulting recommendations would devote $126 million of an initial $258 million to Charter Communications. A total of 47 projects were recommended for funding out of 75 applications. Charter was recommended to get 71% of the money it asked for. Of those who were recommended to get funding, awards ranged from 100% of what applications asked for to 32%.
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The commission forwards recommendations to the governor for approval.
“After careful consideration and after all the public comment and as we did state before, this was preliminary scoring,” Ellsworth said. “To be clear, scores are preliminary at this point and will be coming final as soon, as timely, as possible.”
The Montana Free Press reported earlier this month that smaller broadband and telecommunications providers in Montana were frustrated with the initial scoring, which was released in August.
Several providers who spoke at Monday’s meeting reiterated their concerns. A representative of Charter, however, cautioned against changing the rules for how applications could be graded after they were submitted.
Bridger Mahlum, with Charter, said if applications were double-checked, he wanted all to be treated the same and ones from companies with concerns or complaints not given different attention.
Mahlum also told the committee incorporating any information provided outside of an application would make the process convoluted. He added he had concerns that some providers might now say they are able to do more things than they could in their initial application.
He also said it would be changing the rules to develop some sort of cap for how much money a company could get, something the Montana Free Press reported smaller providers have suggested.
Jon Metropoulos, who spoke on behalf of Tri County Telephone Association and Gallatin Wireless Internet, called the argument the commission was changing any rules about how applications were reviewed “spurious.”
“You have the discretion to do this,” Metropoulos told the committee. He said Charter “clearly has far more resources” to help with their applications and that the point of the program was to create a competitive market in Montana and to support small businesses.
Neither company Metropoulos spoke on behalf of had their applications ranked for funding.
Lowell Feldman, with Inland Cellular, said his company thought there was an error with how their application was scored and that they haven’t been able to reach anyone with the state to discuss it.
Feldman said he felt it was “good policy to consider the strength of the applications as far as what Montana is going to be getting for the dollars it’s spending,” adding that his company’s project would serve 15,000 households — a number he argued was more efficient than other projects.
That efficiency, he said, had no impact on the scoring matrix and he called it “bad public policy” to not take it into account.
Inland’s application was not recommended for funding.
Ellsworth made clear the review of applications would not be a “rescore” and that the state would not be taking additional information from applicants.
“At the end of the day, our job is to make sure that we do what’s best for Montana,” Ellsworth said. “ … At the end of the day we’re going to end up with a product that services Montana best.”
Mahlum also urged the commission to balance “making sure this is done the right way versus the practical thing of how long this takes.”
He said projects are “shovel-ready but may not necessarily be snow-shovel ready.”
“Please be mindful that taking too long on this could come at the expense of delayed projects,” Mahlum said.