Mid-Rivers accepted a new A-CAM broadband funding path from the Federal government in 2016. We knew it was the only possible road to true broadband for all Cooperative members in our remote corner of the world. It was, at times, a painful transition for members and employees, moving from a guaranteed rate of return on every dollar spent, to a fixed amount of annual Federal support with defined build-out obligations.
Efficiency and focus were essential to put that investment to work for the people of Eastern and Central Montana, meet the build-out requirements, and stretch the dollars as far as possible. Broadband became the name of the game, and had to come first above all other needs, wants, and conveniences.
By mid-2023, we were 58 locations away from completing our minimum rural fiber build-out obligation to the supported locations accepted in 2016. But we were planning to do more than the minimum – to still get to every member, supported or not. We were receiving $13 Million per year in Federal support and investing $20-$25 Million per year in fiber. And we were only five short years away from the scheduled END of the Federal program providing that support for build-out and subsidized rural rates. Without that program, rates for voice and Internet in most of Montana would be three to four times what they are today.
Until the June 16, 2023, Enhanced A-CAM announcement from the FCC, Mid-Rivers was tasked with possibly having to complete our rural build-out, keep rates affordable, and fund on-going operations with NO Federal support, for probably the first time in the Cooperative’s 71-year history. While we would have liked to make Internet rate changes that members were asking for earlier, it was simply not possible based on what we were faced with at the time.
Now we can.
On August 30, 2023, the FCC released support offers for the new Enhanced A-CAM program, which would extend Federal support for our broadband build-out and affordable rural rates for another 15 years. It also sets the table for on-going operational support further into the future, to help maintain the broadband networks being built. As a testament to the extreme nature of the region we serve, our Enhanced A-CAM offer topped the list of per state offers nationwide – above offers to companies in Texas, Nebraska, Wyoming, New Mexico, Kansas, and any other company in Montana. The FCC officially confirmed in early October that the Enhanced A-CAM program received enough provider interest to proceed.
Accepting this new support will require intense focus to complete our 8-10 year 100% build-out plan in about half that time. But regardless of the final details, Enhanced A-CAM is a game changer. The money will be there now to finish the 100% rural fiber plan AND to offer an Unlimited Internet plan at a price that works for everyone in all our locations – in town and rural – without raising anyone’s Internet rate. Gamers, streamers, families, the lightest users, businesses – no one on our Wide Open plan will pay more than $79.95/month for broadband, and those who use less than 300 GB will still pay less and will not see a base rate increase. If you are eligible for the ACP program, you won’t pay more than $49.95/month. Internet service will be $4.95/month to eligible ACP customers in Tribal areas. These pricing changes will be made automatically for all current Wide Open customers, without sacrificing any quality of service, reliability, or speed. We will continue to provide top of the line equipment and managed Wi-Fi with no equipment fees.
If you stuck with us through trying times, thank you. If you felt you had to go somewhere else for Internet, we welcome you back. We are here as your local Cooperative to meet your broadband and voice communications needs today, tomorrow, and into the future.