OpEd: Why Rhode Island needs municipal broadband infrastructure
By Rep. Deborah Ruggiero
I could not have predicted the incredible sense of urgency for fiber broadband that has swept Rhode Island and the nation in just five short months!
Millions of dollars in federal funds are available to states, but to access the money the feds are mandating states invest in deploying fiber broadband to unserved and underserved citizens. That’s one way to make sure Rhode Island, one of only two states in the country without any broadband governance or investment over the past eight years, starts deploying fiber to your home and business.
US News.com reports that Rhode Island is ranked 37th for high-speed internet access; Rhode Island is ranked 49th for access to faster, more advanced Gigabit internet connection. Over the past decade, while Rhode Island sat on the sidelines as this technology soared, many states and municipalities invested in fiber broadband. We need to catch up, and fast.
Seventeen states have already earmarked federal dollars for broadband including Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Rhode Island could see $112 million in capital projects for fiber broadband. The U.S Treasury is pretty clear that state capital projects must focus on 100 Mbps (download) and 20 mbps (upload).
Currently 45% of Rhode Islanders do not have 100/20 internet speeds, according to OOKLA Speed Test Intelligence Jan 2020-Aug 2021. Go to www.speedtest.net to see your download/upload internet speeds.
Local government should not be in the broadband business, just as local government is not in the airline business. Local government is in the infrastructure business; building sidewalks and bridges. Government is well-suited to build broadband infrastructure and lease it to internet service providers (ISPs), just as governments often build and own airports and lease the gates to airlines that compete for customers. Competition will bring better services and lower prices.
A municipality could build and own the conduit (pipe) and the fiber (glass) for the public good so businesses and residents have an “open access network.” Any ISP that wants to do business pays rent to the municipality to offer their internet services. Residents and businesses have a choice of internet providers and a municipality has a recurring revenue stream.
Longmont, Colorado, is an example of a successful municipal broadband project. NextLight began building its award-winning fiber network in 2014 and now offers 90,000 residents access to 1,000 Mbps service with 60% take rate (residents subscribing to fiber broadband). There’s also Wilson, North Carolina; Cedar Falls, Iowa; and Everett, Mass.; to name a few. Municipalities would have to perform a cost benefit analysis. If municipalities make bad decisions there will be failures, which is true of any infrastructure project.
This business model could be an economic opportunity for cable companies. Municipalities have something that private and for-profit companies do not have and that’s “patient” capital. A city or town has the financial ability to bond to build over 20 to 30 years, something private companies cannot do because Wall Street will only look at a 3- to 5-year rate of return.
The best measure of fiber broadband is more than “access,” it’s the societal impacts of what it delivers - online learning, telehealth and remote work conferences. I will not stop advocating for faster, reliable, and affordable municipal fiber broadband because it’s not just the future; it’s what will determine where we live, work, learn, and do business.
Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, Jamestown/Middletown, is chairwoman of House Committee on Innovation, Internet, & Technology. She serves on House Finance and sponsored the RI Broadband bill that unanimously passed the House.