Study: Not Enough Montana Government Services on Web

Published March 1, 2009

A new study conducted by Montana State University professor Richard Wolff and Montana Common Cause found the state is well behind the rest of the nation in the availability of government services over the Web.

The study, titled “Citizen Political Enfranchisement and Information Access: Telecommunications Service in Rural and Remote Areas,” was released late last year. It recommends more research into the problem, with future action aimed at helping small communities. On the whole, the state appears to have the same level of high-speed Internet availability as elsewhere, but the study found that availability was focused in the state’s larger cities.

Market Approach Suggested

Far fewer services are offered on local government Web sites in rural areas, Wolff said in his report. He also found government Internet services are less available in areas with older and declining populations.

But instead of having government force the issue by pushing broadband to rural areas of the state, the market will bring high-speed services to many remote locations in Big Sky country and other states in the not too distant future, says André Weber of Simon-Kucher & Partners, a German-based marketing firm with U.S. headquarters in Boston.

“You don’t have to rely on cable or any other single technology, which a government-backed system would likely advocate,” Weber said. “You can let the free market take care of this by itself. Different technologies, including the coverage of wireless networks, are reaching more and more remote areas of the country.”

Government Role Possible

Though some technologies have been slow to move to rural areas, wireless, satellite, and other technologies will bring broadband Internet capabilities to rural areas soon, Weber says. Local governments could then offer more of their services online.

In low-population states such as Montana, there might be some limited role for government promoting broadband, says Steve Titch, a telecom analyst for the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles.

“There are going to be some very rural areas where it’s just not going to be profitable for any [broadband provider] to serve,” Titch said. “In those communities, government could build the fiber. Once they do that, the government should turn the fiber over to a private operator who would pay leasing fees.”

But ventures that stay in state or municipal hands don’t work, Titch said.

Picking Winners Discouraged

When governments get involved, they tend to pick a single technology and protect it even when new solutions at lower prices become available, explained Daniel Ballon, a technology policy fellow at the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute.

“The problem with the government getting involved is that it will always [try to] pick a winner,” Ballon said.

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.

For more information …

“Citizen Political Enfranchisement and Information Access: Telecommunications Service in Rural and Remote Areas,” November 2008, Common Cause Montana and Richard Wolff: