In a reserved corner at Jasper’s Restaurant in St. Regis, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., met with Mineral County officials to discuss current Montana proposals on Tuesday, April 16.
Gianforte tossed around local economy boosting ideas, including the timber industry and forest management, but focused most of his energy on telecommuting.
Gianforte said telecommuting, or working remotely from home, would boost the local economy by allowing people to move to Montana while maintaining their jobs in larger cities.
“For so long so many of our young people moved away,” Gianforte said. “This is where they want to live but they leave because they don’t have a job.”
The congressman suggested that people with high-paying jobs based in cities like Denver or Seattle could bring those jobs back to rural Montana by working remotely.
Lack of broadband internet connection in rural areas is the biggest setback Montanans see with telecommuting. 79 percent of Montana and only 30 percent of Mineral County have access to high speed internet. Montana is the forty-eighth most connected state nationwide.
“There are two black holes in broadband coverage,” Gianforte said. “Ravalli County and this strip along I-90.” Corporate internet providers like Charter Spectrum and CenturyLink, which provide most of Montana, do not expand their services to most rural areas. Charter covers larger Montana cities from Billings to Kalispell but leaves about half of the population uncovered.
Federal programs, like Montana’s Broadband Initiative, help subsidize rural broadband, but companies like Charter don’t use that money in rural areas, Gianforte said.
While telecommuting could bring more people to Montana, Mineral County residents are worried there may not be housing available to them.
“We don’t have anywhere for them to live,” County Commissioner Duane Simons said.
He said the Idaho Forest Group tries to hire people at the mill in St. Regis, but when they arrive there’s no housing, sending them away.
The congressman argued that the average telecommuting salary is high, meaning telecommuters could build homes in Montana. Building homes would also boost the economy by bringing in contractors and other jobs. Gianforte said the average telecommuter salary is $100,000; however, according to ZipRecruiter, the average salary nationwide is $77,000 a year.
“I really like that idea, but I have mixed feelings about seeing a lot of industry come in,” Mineral County Resource Coalition member Diane Magone said. “I don’t think our infrastructure could handle 100 people coming in.”
Gianforte said telecommuting has been a big driver in a lot of other Montana communities, like Shelby and Eureka, but telecommuting on a larger scale cannot happen if broadband coverage doesn’t expand.
“If we could make that happen, we might be able to entice a business that utilizes that,” County Commissioner Roman Zylawy. “They probably can’t come here because there’s nothing really that works for them in terms of speed.”
The congressman said the first step to expand high-speed Internet in rural Montana is to talk to local Internet providers about spreading their coverage.
“If there’s a federal regulation involved, I’ll work to remove it,” Gianforte said.
In 2017, House lawmakers approved a bill extending some federal workers opportunity to telecommute. Gianforte was the bill’s primary sponsor and he has focused on telecommuting during his career as a Congressman.
“Montanans can come back home again,” Gianforte said. “They just have to bring their job with them.”