PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A recent report shows 42% of Rhode Islanders don’t have access to high-speed internet based on federal guidelines, spurring debate among policymakers and advocates over the future of broadband infrastructure.
The January report by the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce comes as the state prepares to receive roughly $200 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and other federal funds to improve broadband infrastructure and access.
But state lawmakers and private broadband providers disagree about how that money should be spent.
The infrastructure law in November changed the federal definition of adequate broadband connections, increasing the new standard to 100 megabits per second download and 20 megabits per second upload speeds.
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The chamber hired consultants who studied broadband speeds across the state, finding 42% of Rhode Islanders are “unserved” or “underserved,” which translates to 134,000 households and small businesses.
The report found Aquidneck Island has particularly slow internet speeds, with nearly the entire island qualifying as “underserved.”
“I was not surprised,” Erin Donovan-Boyle, executive director of the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce, told Target 12 about the report’s findings.
The report concluded that when COVID-19 sent adults to work from home and kids to learn from home, it became clear broadband speeds for many around the state weren’t fast enough. Despite the findings, not everyone agreed there’s a problem.
Tim Wilkerson, president of New England Cable & Telecommunications Association, which represents Rhode Island’s private broadband companies, testified before the R.I. House Innovation, Internet and Technology Committee on Feb. 9.
“There is no lacking of infrastructure here, there’s no lacking of speed, no lacking in reliability here,” Wilkerson said.
He pointed to 48 strands of fiber spread throughout the state.
“Almost 99% of every single location — household and business — in Rhode Island, has high-speed broadband running outside their doors today,” Wilkerson said, arguing the $200 million should be using to connect the remaining 1% of families who can’t afford internet connections.
But Wilkerson clashed with state Rep. Deb Ruggiero over who has access to the faster internet pipeline.
“When you say 99% have fiber running outside, that’s true,” Ruggiero said. “But we can’t connect to it.”
Across the state, it’s mostly hospitals, universities, colleges, libraries, municipal facilities and K-12 schools connecting to fiber broadband through OSHEAN, or Ocean State Higher Education Economic Development and Administrative Network.
Coaxial cable internet, which has trouble reaching higher internet speeds, is currently the most common connection for residents and small businesses throughout the state.
Ruggiero introduced a bill in January that would create a broadband advisory council to expand fiber broadband access to residents and small businesses using the hundreds of millions in federal funds.
“People are paying high internet costs for not great service, and we have a once in a generation opportunity,” Ruggiero told Target 12. “There’s fiber running throughout this state, but the residents are not accessing it.”
“Our internet needs today are interactive,” Ruggiero added. “We’ve got to see and hear each other, whether it’s video conferencing, whether it’s telehealth.”
To date, Ruggiero said private broadband companies have declined to work with OSHEAN to use their fiber network.
The advisory council would comprise the League of Cities and Towns, the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, the R.I. Department of Transportation, as well as others. Included on the council: private broadband providers.
“This is as collaborative and conciliatory as it can be,” Ruggiero said. “I want everyone at the table.”
She introduced a similar bill in 2021 that passed the House unanimously but was never heard in the Senate. Gov. Dan McKee has proposed creating the advisory council as part of his fiscal 2022-23 state budget.
The discussion around the future of broadband infrastructure in Rhode Island has coincided with Cox Communications beefing up its lobbying presence in the State House. The number of lobbyists working for the company increased from two in 2019 to five in 2020, and then 10 in 2021. Cox has seven registered lobbyists so far in 2022, according to the R.I. Secretary of State’s website.
David Marble, CEO of OSHEAN, argues private broadband companies oppose Ruggiero’s bill because they have a monopoly on the market.
“Why would they want anybody else to have a say?” Marble told Target 12. “They’re trying to stave off competition, they’re trying to say, ‘Nothing to see here.'”
Wilkerson warned against making any rash decisions about how the spend the federal infrastructure money. He urged policymakers to consider the long-term implications of creating standalone networks at the municipal level, which he argued could “leave taxpayers holding the bag.”
“It is wasteful and duplicative to have municipalities build their own networks on top of world class networks that already exist,” Wilkerson said in a statement. “Once the federal money runs out, taxpayers are then on the hook to continue to invest, secure, and upgrade these networks. The continued level of investment required at the local level is simply unsustainable.”
If the legislation passes, OSHEAN would have a spot on the council. Marble said creating a broadband advisory council is crucial in making sure the $200 million is put to good use.
“I don’t think it’s a question, I don’t understand why people don’t get it quite honestly, no disrespect to our Senate,” Marble said. “We’re one of only two states in the nation that don’t have a broadband office — us and Mississippi.”
Tolly Taylor (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook