By Representative Deborah Ruggiero:
COVID-19 is the most convincing argument for the state of Rhode Island to invest in broadband. Since we are all engaged in remote working, distance learning, telehealth and social distancing, we’ve never been more dependent on high-speed internet. We need the internet to apply for unemployment benefits ands small business loans, connect with our friends and family and conduct our business meetings as our kids sit in the kitchen accessing remote classroom learning.
Internet service providers and cell phone carriers have stepped up in this moment to create short-term solutions to fit the immediate needs. This is commendable, but reactionary. A smart phone is not an internet connection; hot spots are not a long-term solution. Our state requires a proactive, strategic approach to broadband to serve all residents and businesses.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need, but it’s been prevalent for many years. Even before distance learning, eight out of 10 middle schoolers required the internet to complete their homework. Students without internet at home or who have to rely on a cell phone perform lower in a range of metrics including digital skills, homework and grade point average.
The lack of affordable, high-speed broadband across Rhode Island is hampering economic development and small business growth. The No. 1 concern I hear from small businesses is tech support and the lack of high-speed internet.
Small architectural firms using software that requires fiber-optic connectivity cannot afford the monthly $1,000-plus cost to do their jobs. And those who are on coaxial cable (rather than fiber-optic) are seeing clogged arteries in peak times. Even if you pay for 150 Mbps speeds, you’ll see you’re only getting 75 Mbps because everyone is on the same line. Check out your internet speed in your home or office right now. Go to https://www.speedtest.net to see what you’re really paying for.
We aren’t starting from scratch. Rhode Island received federal funding in 2010 and, with some additional state investment, built out a state-of-the-art broadband highway running through Rhode Island for medical facilities, educational institutions, and nonprofits. Now, we need the “last mile” investment and strategic foresight to finish the on/off ramps to this fiber-optic network so residents and businesses can access broadband. The state’s strategic thinking in broadband ended when federal funding ended in 2014. A lot has happened in six years and our reliance on the internet has only grown.
State investment in broadband takes on many forms. That’s why I introduced House Bill 7096 to create a broadband coordinator position for Rhode Island (which only Rhode Island and Mississippi currently lack). This will pay huge dividends as the first step in bringing knowledgeable people together to collaborate on and drive solutions around affordable connectivity, economic opportunities, accessing federal dollars and creating public/private partnership models that have been successful in other New England stations.
You wouldn’t buy a house or relocate a business if the property lacked water or electricity. Internet has become a modern utility. Internet is the backbone and the lifeblood of any successful economy in the 21 century and beyond.
To continue this conversation, join me and Virtual Venture Café on Zoom Thursday, May 7, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., to discuss ways that we move from where we are to where we need to be for today and tomorrow. Titled “Connectivity in a Post-COVID World,” participants include Ashley Medeiros from Connect Greater Newport, Daniela Fairchild from the RI Office of Innovation, and others in telehealth, business, and education. Visit https://venturecafeprovidence.org/ to learn more.
Representative Deborah Ruggiero chaired the Legislative Broadband Commission in 2014 and represents District 74- Jamestown/Middletown.