Ruggiero broadband bill advances

Rhode Island is one step closer to making Mississippi the only state in the nation without a broadband coordinator.

A bill introduced in the state legislature by Rep. Deb Ruggiero unanimously passed the House last Thursday. She sponsored the bill to expand broadband service across the state because high-speed internet has become “a necessary utility” like water and electricity. Ruggiero, who represents Jamestown and Middletown, chairs the House Innovation, Internet and Technology Committee.

“In today’s information economy, high-speed, low-cost, reliable fiber-optic broadband access is essential to economic development,” she said. “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. With this bill, we’re positioning Rhode Island to attract the broadband infrastructure we need to meet the demands of the 21st century.”

The legislation, which now heads to the state Senate, would create an 11-member advisory council and establish a broadband coordinator within the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation. Only Rhode Island and Mississippi currently are without that position. The absence of a broadband coordinator, Ruggiero said, means Rhode Island is not eligible to access certain federal aid to improve Internet speeds.

Rhode Island currently has a fiber-optic broadband network, Beacon 2.0, that was completed in August 2013. The network connects state institutions, including the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, 39 school districts, 16 libraries and hospitals operated by Lifespan and Care New England, with a fiber-optic backbone. When the federal grant that pays for its construction was exhausted, however, the state entity in charge of expanding access was disbanded. The legislation, if signed into law, would ensure the state “aggressively” seeks opportunities and money for expansion.

“We have a great broadband network available in Rhode Island,” Ruggiero said. “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.”

Under the bill, the broadband coordinator would work to expand accessibility and connectivity, and would be responsible for accessing federal dollars for economic development, broadband policy and coordinating any future money.

The advisory council, with 11 members appointed by the governor, would be in charge of strategic planning for increasing access. It would include representatives from the Emergency Management Agency, the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, the Public Utilities Commission, the Office of Library and Information Services, the Department of Transportation, the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank and the Providence and Newport chambers of commerce.

“This legislation is the floor, not the ceiling, for the highspeed, fiber-optic broadband work ahead in Rhode Island,” Ruggiero said.