By Deb Courson Smith

Montana Internet speeds are the slowest in the country – ranked 50th, according to SpeedMatters.org – and a new report says that slow-going online experience can be detrimental to rural communities.

The report from the Center for Rural Strategies says communities without broadband access are likely to be economically crippled because they’ll lose out on opportunities available to those with high-speed connections. According to SpeedMatters.org, 77 percent of Montana communities have access rated below the Federal Communications Commission’s “minimum standard.”

Dr. Sharon Strover of the University of Texas, who compiled the new report, says that with a slow connection even basic daily functions can put a small business at a big disadvantage.

“If you’ve ever tried to pull up a graphic image on a dial-up connection, you are waiting for a really long time. That means that in order to do something as simple as ordering a part, you are at a huge disadvantage.”

The media watchdog group’s report concludes that in a sink-or-swim world, communities without high-speed access will sink.

Strover sees some encouraging signs, however.

“I believe that the FCC and other federal agencies are taking this far more seriously than they ever did. The money that the stimulus funding pumped into broadband should help.”

The FCC is expected to report this year – as it did last year – that broadband providers are not expanding their services in a timely and satisfactory fashion.

The report, “Scholars’ Roundtable: The Effects of Expanding Broadband to Rural Areas,” is online at ruralstrategies.org. Information on Internet access speed is available at SpeedMatters.org.