HELENA -- Montana's governor on Monday signed an executive order that will require all internet and data providers to adhere to net neutrality principles if they want to be awarded state contracts.

Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, signed the order in front of a computer science class at Helena High. 

"When the FCC repealed its net neutrality rules, it said consumers should choose. The state of Montana is one of the biggest consumers of internet services in our state. Today we're making our choice clear: We want net neutrality," Bullock told the class.

Net neutrality is the principle that internet services providers must treat all data online the same and not charge more for access to certain sites or adjust the speed at which content is delivered based on what consumers pay. Last year the Federal Communications Commission reversed net neutrality rules put in place in 2015 under the Obama administration, arguing the move would spur innovation and the economy.

Montana's Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, who both worked at the tech company RightNow Technologies in Bozeman, supported the change, while U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, opposed it.

State, county and local governments have about $50 million in contracts with providers, including national companies such as Verizon, AT&T, Charter and CenturyLink, as well as local companies like Vision Net and Blackfoot Telecommunications.

Bullock said that by the start of the next fiscal year in July, the order — which took effect immediately — would affect contacts as the state renews them.

Under the executive order, by March 1 the state Department of Administration will prepare policies and guidance.

After July 1, to receive a contract from the state, a service provider must publicly disclose to all of its customers accurate information regarding the network and transport management practices, and performance and commercial terms of its broadband internet access services sufficient for consumers to make informed choices regarding use of such services.

To receive a contract from the state, a service provider must not:

  • block lawful content, applications, services or non-harmful devices, subject to reasonable network management that is disclosed to the consumer;
  • throttle, impair or degrade lawful internet traffic on the basis of internet content, application or service, or use of a non-harmful device, subject to reasonable network management that is disclosed to the consumer;
  • engage in paid prioritization;
  • unreasonably interfere with or unreasonably disadvantage a user's ability to select, access and use broadband internet service or the lawful internet content, applications, services, or devices of their choice; or
  • effect providers’ ability to make lawful content, applications, services or devices available to end users.

Bullock on Monday offered his executive order to other states, local governments or companies that may want to model it.

A spokeswoman for USTelecom, which represents the broadband industry, told the Associated Press on Monday that Congress and not individual states should step forward to craft permanent rules.

"We simply cannot have 50 different regulations governing our internet," said Sally Aman, USTelecom's senior vice president for public affairs.

It was not immediately clear if Bullock's order could face a legal challenge for being out of step with the FCC plan or if the governor has latitude because his order applies to state contracts only.

The FCC repeal — expected to go into effect this spring — preempted states and cities from imposing rules that contradict its own plan. Aman declined to tell the Associated Press if the broadband association would file a lawsuit over Bullock's order.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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