NEWPORT, R.I. — On Tuesday, Cox Communications’ national president Mark Greatrex walked into the Old Colony House with Governor Dan McKee, ready to announce a “historic investment” in Rhode Island’s infrastructure: $120 million in broadband in the Ocean State over three years, with $20 million earmarked for Newport, Portsmouth, Middletown, and Jamestown.
Greatrex and other Cox executives, who had flown in from Atlanta for the announcement, said the money would help build a multi-gigabit broadband system for residents and businesses. And that $20 million of those funds would go toward 100 percent fiber-optic buildouts on Aquidneck Island alone.
But even though Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio stood with Greatrex at the podium on Tuesday, local lawmakers are now questioning whether the investment will do much good after what they called “years of underinvestment.”
Representative Deborah Ruggiero, a Jamestown Democrat who has advocated for broadband access expansion on the island, said that while it’s commendable Cox is “finally” upgrading their infrastructure, it didn’t seem like enough of an investment.
“When you break down the $20 million among four communities over three years, it is $1.6 million (per year). How is that not routine maintenance that should have been happening over the past eight to 10 years? If they are really deploying ‘last mile’ fiber to 35,000 households as they mentioned, the cost would be close to $50 million,” said Ruggiero, who leads the House Innovation, Internet, and Technology committee. “The numbers don’t work, and where exactly are those households?”
Rhode Island will receive at least $100 million in federal funding through the Infrastructure & Jobs Act to expand broadband access, and could use millions more from the American Rescue Plan. But Ruggiero said the state should enact a proposal she has introduced for the last several years to create a state council and “more effectively” advocate for the state’s broadband needs instead of relying on the a provider like Cox.
Jeff Lavery, a spokesman for Cox, told the Globe on Thursday that the company was disappointed, but not surprised, to see the statements issued by Ruggiero.
Ruggiero “has continued to focus on municipal-owned networks that create great risk and vulnerability for taxpayers,” he said. “Our investment in infrastructure allows for federal and state dollars to be utilized to address broadband adoption and digital equity.”
Timothy O. Wilkerson, president of the New England Cable & Telecommunications Association, Inc., said in a statement to the Globe that Ruggiero is “committed to an agenda that puts the taxpayers on the hook” to develop and maintain municipal owned networks.
“What she hasn’t explained to the taxpayers of Jamestown is that once the federal broadband money runs out they will be responsible for upgrading and maintaining the system,” said Wilkerson, who said New England is “littered” with municipal-owned networks that have “failed and wasted precious public resources.”
“Do Jamestown residents want to be calling Town Hall when their internet goes out?” he asked. “Who will restore these municipal systems after a hurricane? How many employees will be required to pay for these duplicative systems?”
After learning about Wilkerson’s comments, Ruggiero shot back: “Any municipality considering public-private broadband development would have to due diligence and put pencil to paper to see if the project is viable for the community.”
“The municipality may own the infrastructure (like a road or a bridge), but a private company (Cox, Comcast, etc.) provides the internet service,” she said. “Critically, the infrastructure is ‘open access,’ meaning multiple companies can offer service on it, so customers have choices for internet service.”
“Obviously, you will not be calling Town Hall if you have an internet problem. You would still call your internet provider,” said Ruggiero, who said the community-owned networks that existed three decades ago may not have worked, but now, across the US, there are “hundreds of successful public-private partnerships driving municipal broadband projects.”
“Rhode Island is one of only two states that has not been in this game for the past eight years,” she said.
A recent study by Connect Greater Newport found that 40 percent of the populated square miles of Rhode Island meet the federal definition of “underserved” when it comes to broadband speed. All of the islands are either underserved or have no broadband access at all, said Ruggiero.
Broadband, which is reliable high-speed internet, has download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second, or Mbps, and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps. According to the Federal Communications Commission, broadband can be delivered through multiple technologies, including fiber, fixed wireless, digital subscriber line, or cable.
Over the last decade, about 80 percent of students in Rhode Island needed Internet to complete their homework and 90 percent of job applications were online. Yet nearly 59,000 families in Rhode Island, or more than 14.2 percent of households, were not connected to the Internet and approximately 10 percent of households only had access to a smartphone or data plan.
In 2010, the state used public funding to construct a 48-strand fiberoptic broadband “highway” that would connect to businesses and homes across the state. Building the “last mile” connections to customers was left to Cox, which now controls the entire infrastructure.
Representative Terri Cortvriend, a Middletown Democrat, said many of her constituents have complained that their cable and internet bills have seen “significant increases over the last few months,” despite poor service.
“Is this really enough money to address the years of neglect? What I find interesting is Cox is saying, ‘Internally, the company had to wait for the infrastructure to be available for the build-out,’” said Cortvriend. “Are they saying they had to wait for the federal dollars to be available before they’d actually do upgrades on Aquidneck Island?”
When pressed on what commitments Cox would make in underserved communities, Ross Nelson, senior vice president and region manager of the Northeast for Cox, told the Globe that he agreed there are disparities, but that’s because of a lack of “adoption,” not availability.
“Municipalities, unlike private companies, answer to the taxpayers. Municipalities can also bond over 20 to 30 years to pay for infrastructure so you build an entire community instead of waiting years for the cable company to show up,” said Ruggiero.
Lavery, the Cox spokesman, said all Rhode Island taxpayers are “at risk” when the federal dollars are allocated to constructing “redundant infrastructure that cannot possibly be maintained by municipalities once the federal dollars are exhausted.”
Wilkerson said his organization will work with the McKee administration and General Assembly to “ensure this bad public policy” of municipal-owned networks is never developed in Rhode Island.
“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,” said Wilkerson.
Representative Lauren H. Carson, a Newport Democrat, said after hearing about poor quality internet service and rising costs over the last five years, it’s time that there was competition on Aquidneck Island.
“While Cox is finally recognizing the 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,” said Carson. “It’s really a PR smokescreen.”