Broadband Issues Getting Full Attention
When the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce Regional Economic Development Division surveyed businesses about the biggest challenges they faced, 62 percent had broadband on the top of the list.
Now, the chamber is hoping to help with this issue by completing geographic information system mapping in the area.
The chamber was recently awarded $50,000 from Commerce Rhode Island, through the van Beuren Trust, to do GIS mapping, a feasibility study and a cost analysis related to broadband.
GIS mapping is a way to do satellite mapping of infrastructure underneath the ground. The grant will be specific to broadband infrastructure.
Erin Donovan-Boyle, chamber executive director, said it will identify what weaknesses exist and the upgrades needed.
“It’s a complex issue that has multiple solutions that need to be really evaluated, so we can figure out the best way to move forward,” she said.
The hope is to complete the mapping in the next five months. By so doing, the chamber will be eligible to receive federal stimulus money likely to become available to address broadband infrastructure issues.
“By the fall, we should have a good idea of what … projects could be available and eligible for stimulus [funds],” she said.
“GIS mapping … more accurately depicts where broadband has been deployed,” said Paul Cain, director of regulatory affairs for Cox. “This can drive federal and state funds to subsidize broadband buildout in unserved areas and prevent funding from going to currently served areas.”
Since the pandemic, Cox has seen unprecedented demand placed on the network, said Stephanie Federico, vice president of public and government affairs for the company.
“Cox identified strategies for preserving available bandwidth on the island, accelerating network upgrade plans to ensure customers can access a variety of high-speed options at the same price point as every other Rhode Island resident,” she said. “These upgrades involve multiple levels of infrastructure and equipment improvements, all of which add capacity to the area.
Although there is fiber-optic, high-speed broadband on the island, people aren’t regularly connected to it, Donovan-Boyle said.
“The state has never invested in the last mile in hooking people up to the modern-day needs of what broadband speeds are acceptable,” she said.
The main issue, she said, is the expense of connecting the fiber broadband from the street to businesses and homes. The chamber is hopeful to be able to identify where it makes the most sense to have it, and to receive federal infrastructure money to connect it.
“That’s the next phase of things that need to be done,” Donovan Boyle said.
One local legislator is also working to make it a reality. Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, who represents Jamestown and Middletown, recently introduced legislation that would create the state’s first broadband coordinator, which she said is needed to secure federal funding. If it doesn’t pass, federal stimulus money dedicated to addressing broadband could be lost.
“Lots and lots of federal funds will be flowing into every state across America for broadband infrastructure,” Ruggiero said. “But the federal dollars will only go to states that have a dedicated broadband coordinator or state entity that can access, administer and oversee the federal broadband funds.”
Ruggiero hosted a virtual forum, along with Rep. Terri Cortvriend and Rep. Lauren Carson, on May 13. Ashley Medeiros, from Innovation Studies, Rich Overmoyer, from Connect Greater Newport, and Bob Knight, from the Fiber Broadband Association in Washington, D.C., were also part of the forum. Residents across the state submitted questions to the panelists.
The R.I. House has created an Innovation, Internet and Technology Committee, Carson said. Ruggiero will chair the committee, with Carson as vice-chair. The committee will hear the broadband legislation.
“It really does signal on the part of the House of Representatives that we are taking this issue very seriously and committing resources to it,” Ruggiero said.
If infrastructure money for broadband is received, rules will be established for how to spend the funds, she said.
“That’s going to become one of the next biggest financial debates this year after we pass our budget in June,” Carson said. “It will really be something worth watching.”
Ruggiero said Rhode Island has been losing out on this federal money for the past seven years.
“That’s why I’ve sponsored a broadband bill that needs to pass this legislative session to get our state off the bench [and] into the technology broadband game,” she said. “Rhode Island is one of only two states in the country without a broadband coordinator.”
Ruggiero said it is critical that residents and businesses are connected to fiber-optic broadband.
“Rhode Island citizens and small businesses need high-speed, low-cost and reliable broadband service, and not coaxial cable that’s shared with several hundred other homes or businesses, causing buffering and spotty coverage,” she said. “Fiber-optic broadband is amazingly fast, because it’s laser and doesn’t use electrical signals, so you don’t lose internet connectivity during an electrical outage.”
Ruggiero said surrounding states have faster internet speeds, which is allowing them to retain residents, especially those who work remotely.
“New Hampshire and Massachusetts are making a push to get people to live in those states and work remotely because they have invested in dedicated fiber-optic broadband,” she said. “We’re losing businesses in Newport County because of the low internet speeds and high-cost of coaxial cable internet.”
Medeiros said that they want to see the broadband coordinator bill passed this year, and compared the fiber internet not being available to everyone to having better highways not everyone could use.
“If we had a four-lane superhighway throughout the whole state and we couldn’t use it, we’d be screaming and yelling,” she said. “We should be screaming and yelling that we have a four-lane superhighway to the internet and we’re sitting in traffic, while a select few are using this.”
Ruggiero is hopeful the bill will pass in the next 30 days.
“COVID-19 has been the most convincing argument for Rhode Island to invest in high-speed internet, or dedicated broadband,” she said. “Whether for remote working from home, distance-learning or telehealth, broadband access must be reliable, fast, and affordable. You wouldn’t buy a house or relocate your business without access to water or electricity. High-speed internet in a 21st-century economy is a necessary utility.”