Optical/IP Networks

Construction starts on open access fiber network in Montana

Work has begun to bring an open access fiber broadband network to rural Montana.

Non-profit organization Yellowstone Fiber (formerly Bozeman Fiber) announced this week that it has started laying conduit to install underground fiber to connect homes and businesses in Gallatin County and the city of Bozeman, Montana.

Fields in rural Gallatin County, near Bozeman, Montana.
 (Source: Timothy Swope/Alamy Stock Photo)
Fields in rural Gallatin County, near Bozeman, Montana.
(Source: Timothy Swope/Alamy Stock Photo)

According to a representative for Yellowstone Fiber, the project's first phase will see 1.4 million linear feet of fiber get built, ultimately covering over 40,000 premises in Gallatin County. In a press release, Yellowstone Fiber said that includes "every address in the City of Bozeman" and that it will "begin to extend the network deep into Gallatin County, finally connecting unserved rural areas and ranches, long left behind by internet service providers (ISPs)."

Gallatin County has 122,000 residents, 55,000 of whom live in Bozeman.

The Yellowstone Fiber project is unique in that it's a partnership with Utopia Fiber: a Utah-based, municipal open access network formed in 2002 and launched in 2004. In addition to serving 19 cities in Utah, Utopia Fiber also started delivering operational support beyond state lines, first in 2018 with Idaho Falls Fiber, and most recently in Montana with Yellowstone Fiber.

On this episode of The Divide, Utopia Fiber's Roger Timmerman discusses how the open access municipal network got its start in Utah.

"We're really excited to be partnering with Yellowstone Fiber," said Roger Timmerman, executive director of Utopia Fiber in a January press release announcing the partnership. "The financials for the project look fantastic, meaning that we can bring fiber to even more homes, businesses, and ranches in Bozeman City and Gallatin County. We think it's one of the most exciting fiber-broadband projects in the country."

As an open access network, Yellowstone builds the fiber infrastructure but leases space on its network to multiple private-sector service providers. Thus far, there are six ISPs signed up to deliver service on Yellowstone's fiber network, which it estimates will take three years to complete: Blackfoot, Global Net, Hoplite Industries, Skynet, Tri-County Telephone Associates (TCT) and XMission.

Whether the open access model continues to catch on in the US remains to be seen, though some stakeholders see these networks as key to closing the digital divide. In a letter to NTIA Chief Alan Davidson this week, Democrats in the House of Representatives suggested the agency give funding priority to open access networks with its forthcoming $42.45 billion BEAD grant program funded through the infrastructure law. The notice of funding opportunity for states to apply for billions in broadband grants is expected in May.

Bond, County Bond.

One key difference between Utopia Fiber and Yellowstone Fiber is that Yellowstone is not municipally owned. Rather, the $65 million project is privately backed by funds raised by KeyBanc Capital Markets, with Gallatin County serving as financial conduit.

As Bozeman Daily Chronicle explains in its reporting on the project, "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."

The state could use as much broadband funding as it can get: According to data from BroadbandNow, Montana ranks 50th in the US for broadband access, with 88.7% of those in Gallatin County able to access minimum speeds of 25/5 Mbit/s.

"We're already seeking funding for our next phase, building out into the rest of Gallatin County," said Greg Metzger, CEO of Yellowstone Fiber, in a press release.

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— Nicole Ferraro, site editor, Broadband World News; senior editor, global broadband coverage, Light Reading. Host of "The Divide" on the Light Reading Podcast.

A version of this story first appeared on Broadband World News.

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