STATE HOUSE – The budget bill approved by the House of Representatives today includes an initiative proposed by House Innovation, Internet & Technology Committee Chairwoman Deborah Ruggiero to establish a strategic plan to access federal dollars for broadband infrastructure projects for municipalities, public housing, and businesses.
The budget bill (2022-H 7123Aaa), which is expected to be taken up by the Senate Wednesday, includes Chairwoman Ruggiero’s plan (2022-H 7083) to grant responsibility for coordinating and overseeing the state’s broadband initiatives to the Executive Office of Commerce. It gives the office the authority to receive and administer federal monies for grants, programs and related mapping work as well as the responsibility to create a statewide broadband strategic plan, including goals for elements such as speed, latency, affordability, reliability, access, sustainability and digital equity, to be updated every five years.
“I’ve been calling on broadband policy for our state for two years to bring Rhode Island into the next generation of digital access and equity,” said Chairwoman Ruggiero (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown). “Like every state, Rhode Island is set to receive a huge federal investment to address our broadband needs, but we need to qualify for it. Our state must develop a plan for fiber broadband deployment to homes and businesses and a plan to fix digital inequities in underserved and unserved neighborhoods.”
As included in the budget, the proposal would establish a broadband director 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, as well as a nine-member Broadband Advisory Council to advise the executive office on strategic plan development and investment strategies, and develop a statewide curriculum for digital skills training in consultation with the Governor’s Workforce Board.
The budget also includes $25 million for a new project to expand reliable, high-speed internet. The proposal will provide municipalities, public housing authorities, businesses, and internet service providers with funding to expand internet access to underserved communities. Funds are meant to serve as the state match for at least $100 million in federal broadband funds that Rhode Island is eligible for under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act as well as other federal grants.
“My bill, now as part of the budget, will put in place the structures Rhode Island needs to get back to work connecting our whole state to the broadband service that is so vital to business, education and life in the 21st century. Our internet experience has become much more interactive with remote work, video conferencing, telehealth, online education and entertainment. We know longer go online, we live online,” said Representative Ruggiero.
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 seven years ago, Rhode Island ceased having a state entity in charge of expanding access to fiber-optic technology. Very little of the state is actually connected to that “middle mile” of fiber. Rhode Island is the only state in the country without any broadband governance.
“We have a broadband network available in Rhode Island. What we lack are the ‘on ramps’ for residents, business, and municipalities to connect to the fiber highway, especially in Newport County. Broadband must be reliable, fast and affordable. Bandwidth expectations have grown exponentially as our internet needs have become more interactive with entertainment, remote work, video conferencing and telehealth. Rhode Island has not focused on infrastructure or fiber-optic broadband, missing out on federal dollars and not staying current on technology trends. This bill helps leverage the federal dollars and get us back in the broadband game,” said Chairwoman Ruggiero.