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Ennis and Big Sky to see better Internet service from $70M broadband loan

A $70 million federal loan to expand rural broadband in northern Montana will also improve Internet service for people in Big Sky and Ennis, an official with 3 Rivers Telephone Cooperative said Thursday.

The USDA Rural Utilities Service announced yesterday that the Fairfield-based cooperative will receive a $70 million loan to install 1,700 miles of fiber-optic cable and upgrade buildings and equipment in the Great Falls area.

But the company also has about 5,000 customers in Big Sky and Ennis who will see upgrade equipment and faster Internet speeds, said interim 3 Rivers general manager Mike Henning.

“We’re going to upgrade our electronics to state-of-the-art electronics” in Big Sky and Ennis, Henning said. “A lot of the exchanges where we’re building fiber to the home, some of them are close to 30 or 40 years old.”

Currently, customers in those areas have access to download speeds of about 6 megabits per second, Henning said. The upgrades would push that somewhere to the 40 megabit to 50 megabit range.

Work on the upgrades will start this fall and is expected to take up to five years.

The 3 Rivers loan is part of a batch of eight rural broadband loans announced Wednesday by the RUS totaling $192 million.

The money comes from the RUS’s Telecommunication Infrastructure Loan Program and is part of a budgeted $690 million investment. It is in addition to the $3.5 billion in rural broadband funding the RUS awarded as part of the federal stimulus.