Missoula is looking into beefing up local Internet connectivity to help grow the region's budding tech industry and entice new businesses into the area.

Feb. 13, Missoula agreed to a contract with the Bitterroot Economic Development District to write a grant seeking state funding to study building Missoula its own personal off-ramp from the main Internet backbone, which runs along Interstate 90.

The proposed technology, called a gigabit point of presence, or GigaPoP, would be for commercial use and would increase Internet speed, capacity and reliability by providing direct access into the main Internet artery running across the state.

There are currently no stops or access points to this national backbone anywhere in Montana. Local service providers buy access from telecommunication conglomerates like AT&T who route data through GigaPoPs elsewhere across the country.

“Right now if you’re sending an email, for example, it goes from Seattle to Minneapolis and then back to Missoula,” Missoula City Councilwoman Caitlin Copple said.

This diversion slows data transfer, causing problems like long buffering times when watching videos.

“Nobody's offering really high-speed Internet in town,” said Paul DeWolfe, president of Missoula-based Internet advising company, Access Consulting.

In a time when most connections are measured in gigabits per second, DeWolfe said Missoula is still stuck in the megabit age. 

“It’s a barrier to businesses either starting in Missoula or moving to Montana,”

Strangely enough, high-speed connection options lie just beneath Missoulians’ feet but are not being utilized. In the 1990s, utility company Touch America buried an extensive network of fiber-optic cables in Missoula and throughout Montana.

That company quickly went bankrupt, however, and with installation quotes of $500 and monthly service fees of over $800, this so-called “dark fiber” remains entombed beyond the price range of most consumers.

Missoula's situation is not unique. Communities throughout the country lack affordable Internet options.

 “We're not getting a very good shake here,” said Russ Fletcher, business consultant and founder of Montana Associated Technologies Roundtables.  “Its absolutely amazing to be in other parts of the world, which you would think would be third class, backwards, etc., but then to find they have significantly better Internet connectivity than we do and its much, much cheaper.”

The saga of America's Internet revolution parallels that of electricity at the turn of the 20th century, Fletcher said. Large corporations quickly gained control over the service and stopped acting with consumers’ interests in mind. The takeover prompted government regulation on utilities, and Fletcher said the same could be necessary for Internet service providers today.

Rather than waiting for Congress to act, some cities have acted independently.

Lafayette, La., created a municipal Internet service providing faster speeds and cheaper prices than available from the private sector.

Missoula could join this trend by gaining a GigaPoP, Fletcher said, setting itself apart as a city that fosters technological innovation.

There are several options for Missoula to operate a GigaPoP should the city attain one, Copple said. The service could be a purely public utility, a public-private partnership or even a nonprofit enterprise.

“We’re really open to everything and want to leave no stone unturned,” she said.

Paul DeWolfe said he would like the resource consolidated, creating a provider-neutral network everybody could tap into.   

Whatever the model, Copple said a GigaPoP is something Missoula’s tech industry wants and needs to continue growing locally.

Terra Echoes is one example of this growth. The data-analysis company was founded in Missoula a year ago, currently employs 11 people full time and plans to double by 2014. Operating under the motto “Knowing. Now.,” direct access to the Internet main line would be a welcomed asset for Terra Echoes, according to Senior Applications Engineer Rob Kinnear.

“Having a good ‘data-pipe’ would certainly benefit a company like ours,” he said.  

Marketing and Operations Director Whitney Hepp said Terra Echoes likes to hire within Montana and the university system where she said students graduate with the skills they need.

“Unfortunately, there’s been a trend for anyone in computer science to leave because the jobs are better in different cities,” Hepp said.

Copple said strengthening the Internet connection in Missoula through a GigaPoP is one way to retain this local talent, while stimulating the economy and drawing in businesses from around the region and country.

“I’d especially like to see us retain our young people and I feel like technology jobs are the key to the future,” she said.

The GigaPoP initiative is still in its infancy. Copple said the next step is to conduct a feasibility study analyzing issues like operation models, demand for high-speed connections and local business retention and recruitment affects, should Missoula build a GigaPoP.

The Bitterroot Economic Development District is writing a grant on the behalf of the city for $25,000 in state funding for the study. If approved, the city has informally agreed to match the funds.

Copple said she hopes to have the grant process done before the City's fiscal year ends June 30. The GigaPoP would cost roughly $1.2 million to build with $50,000 maintenance per year. A price, which Copple said, is worth it.

 “It’s really important that we’re not only keeping up,” she said, “but that were also ahead of the curve and doing whatever we can to set ourselves apart.”