The House of Representatives on Thursday approved legislation sponsored by House Innovation, Internet and Technology Committee Chairwoman Deborah Ruggiero (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown) to strategically cultivate expanded broadband service statewide.
According to a press release from the General Assembly, the legislation (2021-H 5148A) would create an 11-member Broadband Council and establish a broadband coordinator within the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation to better position Rhode Island to access federal funding, address issues of high-speed internet access, and leverage economic development opportunities.
“In today’s information economy, high-speed, low-cost, reliable fiber-optic broadband access is essential to economic development. We need a coordinated effort to ensure that the technology is available in all parts of our state. This bill ensures that we have an agency within state government dedicated to this work to help us capture available funding and to help push the market to meet our needs here in Rhode Island. With this bill, we’re positioning Rhode Island to attract the broadband infrastructure we need to meet the demands of the 21st century,” said Chairwoman Ruggiero in a statement.
Rhode Island has a fiber-optic broadband network, Beacon 2.0, completed in August, 2013, that connects many state institutions including URI, RIC and the State Data Center, 39 school districts, 16 library facilities and the state’s three largest hospital consortia with a fiber-optic backbone. But when the federal grant that helped fund its construction was exhausted, Rhode Island ceased having a state entity in charge of expanding access to fiber-optic technology. Representative Ruggiero’s legislation seeks to ensure the state aggressively seeks opportunities and funding for expansion.
“We have a great broadband network available in Rhode Island. What we lack are the ‘on ramps’, especially in Newport County; broadband access must be reliable, fast, and affordable for our residents, businesses, and municipalities. For the past six years, Rhode Island has not been focused on infrastructure or fiber-optic broadband, missing out on federal dollars and not staying current on technology trends. Although the state is late to the game, this bill gets us in the broadband game. This legislation is the floor, not the ceiling, for the high-speed, fiber-optic broadband work ahead in Rhode Island,” said Chairwoman Ruggiero.
Under the bill, the broadband coordinator would work to expand broadband accessibility and internet connectivity and would be responsible for accessing federal dollars for economic development, broadband policy and coordinating any future funding efforts. Currently, Rhode Island and Mississippi are the only states without a broadband coordinator.
The Broadband Council would be in charge of strategic planning for increasing broadband access and use. It would include representatives from the state Emergency Management Agency, Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, Public Utilities Commission, the Office of Library and Information Services, Ocean State Higher Education Economic Development and Administrative Network (OSHEAN), the Department of Transportation, the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, the Providence Chamber of Commerce, the Newport Chamber of Commerce, the George Wiley Center and a telecommunications attorney appointed by the governor.
The legislation now goes to the Senate, where Sen. James A. Seveney (D-Dist. 11, Portsmouth, Bristol, Tiverton) is sponsoring a companion measure. The House bill is co-sponsored by House Majority Leader Christopher R. Blazejewski (D-Dist. 2, Providence), House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian (D-Dist. 63, East Providence), Rep. Terri Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown), Rep. Lauren H. Carson (D-Dist. 75, Newport), Rep. Michelle E. McGaw (D-Dist. 71, Portsmouth, Middletown, Little Compton) and Rep. David Morales (D-Dist. 7, Providence).