A national organization that aims to completely eliminate the digital divide in rural America over the next five years has expanded its presence in Montana. The Montana Chamber of Commerce has joined Connect Americans Now (CAN), a coalition that advocates for a mixed-technology approach to bridging the rural broadband gap, particularly by encouraging policymakers to clear the barriers so innovative technologies like TV white space can be pursued.

“This country has been working to close the rural broadband gap for nearly two decades, but we can’t fully tackle this problem without removing barriers to innovation,” said Shelby DeMars, a spokesperson for CAN. “We’re excited to be expanding CAN’s broad-base of support on behalf of the thousands of Montanans who remain on the wrong side of the digital divide.”

Montana Chamber of Commerce is the latest in a growing number of Montana organizations who have joined CAN, including Montana Rural Education Association, Montana Farm Bureau Federation and Montana Stockgrowers Association, among others.

“Broadband access is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity,” said Bridger Mahlum, government affairs director of Montana Chamber of Commerce. “Access to reliable broadband is a necessity for our Montana businesses, it’s critical for our residents and students in rural areas that need to access the internet for online education resources and job training, and we owe it to our farmers and ranchers to make the latest and best technology available to them. In an evolving, high-tech marketplace we can’t let Montanans be left behind by not addressing the digital divide.”

CAN also encourages the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to fix how it measures broadband availability in rural states. FCC has admitted the current methodology is flawed, an issue CAN notes impacts both private and public investments in broadband deployment.

“We should at least know the full scope of the challenge and right now the FCC’s methodology does not reflect the true lack of broadband in rural areas,” DeMars said. “They’ve identified areas as having broadband access where none actually exists.”

In 2018, Microsoft conducted a study comparing usage data to the FCC’s broadband availability statistics. The study found that while the FCC claims 77 percent of Montanans have access to broadband internet, just 33 percent actually access the internet at broadband speeds.

The disparity is particularly large in Wheatland County. The FCC suggests 92.9 percent of the county has broadband connectivity, while the Microsoft study found just three percent of county residents access the internet at broadband speeds.

Connect Americans Now has over 200 members nationwide. More on the coalition and its mission can be found at connectamericansnow.com.

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