PROVIDENCE – Cox Communications’ $120 million plan to upgrade Rhode Island’s broadband infrastructure is not enough for three state lawmakers, including Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, chair of the House Innovation, Internet and Technology Committee.
On March 15, Cox announced a $120 million effort to upgrade 10 GB capable service across the state over the next three years. The company proposed that more than $20 million would fund 100% fiber-optic buildouts to about 35,000 homes on Aquidneck Island, and Jamestown. The rest of the funds will go toward infrastructure upgrades using hybrid fiber/coaxial cable across the state.
On Wednesday Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, and two House colleagues, Lauren H. Carson, D-Newport, and Terri D. Cortvriend, D-Middletown, expressed criticism of Cox’s proposal.
Ruggiero said island residents have long had issues with slow, frequently disconnecting internet service, that is available only through Cox. She has advocated for state-governed broadband network access and expansion across the state, particularly in underserved areas of the islands.
“When you break down the $20 million among four communities over three years, it is $1.6 million. How is that not routine maintenance that should have been happening over the past eight to 10 years?” she said. “If they are really deploying last-mile fiber to 35,000 households as they mentioned, the cost would be close to $50 million. The numbers don’t work, and where exactly are those households?”
Ruggiero said the state should enact a proposal to create a Broadband Advisory Council and dedicated staff at the R.I. Commerce Corp., a quasi-public state agency that handles economic development, to effectively advocate for the state’s broadband needs, rather than relying on the incumbent provider.
“The public demands transparency as the state receives hundreds of millions of federal dollars to deploy fiber broadband,” she said. “We need to invest fairly and smartly to build an innovate future and I look forward to working with all our partners.”
Cox’s reaction to the criticism was directed at Ruggiero, who has been spearheading a legislative campaign aimed at upgrading the state’s broadband infrastructure.
Jeffrey Lavery, spokesman for Cox Communications, said Ruggiero has continued to focus on municipal owned networks that create great risk and vulnerability for taxpayers.
“Our investment in infrastructure allows for federal and state dollars to be utilized to address broadband adoption and digital equity,” he said. “We are encouraged to see so many members of the General Assembly committed to adoption and solving the problem of digital equity, and not the construction of redundant infrastructure that cannot possibly be maintained by municipalities once the federal dollars are exhausted.”
State Democratic leaders Gov. Daniel J. McKee, Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio and House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi all turned out at Cox’s March 15 announcement in support of the project.
Timothy O. Wilkerson, president of the New England Cable & Telecommunications Association, said unfortunately for the taxpayers of Jamestown, Ruggiero is committed to an agenda that puts taxpayers on the hook to develop and maintain municipal owned networks.
“What she hasn’t explained to the taxpayers of Jamestown is that once federal broadband money runs out they will be responsible for upgrading and maintaining the system,” he said. “Do Jamestown residents want to be calling town hall when their internet goes out? Who will restore these municipal systems after a hurricane? How many employees will be required to pay for these duplicative systems?”
Wilkerson said New England is littered with municipal owned networks that have failed and wasted precious public resources.
“To that end, we will continue to work with the McKee administration and House and Senate leaders to ensure this bad public policy is never developed in Rhode Island,” he said. “It is baffling any elected official would be so critical of a nine-figure investment in a state’s infrastructure and it sends a terrible message to the business community inside and outside of Rhode Island’s borders.”
Cortvriend questioned whether the $120 million was enough money to address the years of neglect of the state’s broadband infrastructure.
“I have many constituents complaining that their cable and internet bills have seen significant increases over the last few months and the service is still poor,” she said. “I’m sure the Connect Greater Newport broadband study on the 40% of residents and businesses that are underserved got their attention.”
Carson said that during the past five years her Newport constituents repeatedly contacted her about the poor quality and the spiraling costs of internet and cable services.
“We need competition on Aquidneck Island for our businesses, residents, and municipalities,” she said. “While Cox is finally recognizing concerns after years of neglect, these new plans for improving service fall woefully short of actually relieving costs and providing any competition on the island. It’s really a PR smokescreen.”
Rhode Island is in line to receive at least $100 million in federal funding through the Infrastructure & Jobs Act for expanding broadband access and could allocate millions more from its $1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funding.
The governor’s office did not immediately respond with comment regarding criticism of the Cox investment.
Greg Pare, spokesman for Ruggerio, said the Senate president was “appreciative that Cox continues to make major private, capital investments in Rhode Island.”
(RECASTS lede; ADDS 10th paragraph with Democratic leadership support; minor edits.)
Cassius Shuman is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Shuman@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter @CassiusShuman.
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Why not let Verizon compete with Cox on Aquidneck Island like they do in PVD?