GA

OpEd: The Last Mile: Getting Fiber Broadband to Your Home or Business

By Rep. Deborah Ruggiero

As the pandemic continues, it’s been an eye-opener on how important access to high-speed fiber optic is in our modern life. Decades ago, our nation created infrastructure programs for electricity, telephone and highways. Today, it’s fiber broadband — fast, cheap and the future. Rhode Island’s coaxial, copper cable system is old-school. 

Rhode Island will receive over $150 million in federal funding for broadband through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that has passed the U.S Senate and is now in the U.S. House.  The bill includes 5% of federal dollars to be used for planning, GIS mapping, and strategy implementation to set up a state broadband office. Currently, Rhode Island is one of only two states without any state agency working on fiber broadband.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to develop a broadband strategic plan, create GIS (geographic information systems) mapping that shows which areas of the state are unserved and underserved, and deploy fiber to homes and businesses instead of the coaxial, copper cable we’ve been using for decades. 

Rhode Island has a lot of fiber between R.I. Department of Transportation fiber and OSHEAN’s 48 strands. However, there are no on/off ramps to connect municipalities, residents or businesses to this fiber highway. Broadband is as important in the 21st century as electricity was in the 20th century.  

In order to access the federal funding, Rhode Island will need to develop a plan for fiber broadband deployment to homes and businesses and a plan to fix digital inequities in underserved and unserved neighborhoods.  

The new RI Broadband office, with 2 or 3 dedicated employees should begin by setting up municipal broadband and funding opportunities.

Since this is federal funding, the state will be required to use a competitive bidding process for connecting homes and businesses to broadband. Many states and municipalities already have “open access” fiber networks where several internet service providers compete to provide service, which means you have a choice. When did competition become a bad thing in Rhode Island?  

COVID has taught us how important high-speed internet access is. Incumbent cable providers sell download speeds of 175 or 200 Mbps. That’s fine if you’re only downloading a movie, but it’s upload speeds that matter. The internet is now interactive. Upload speeds of 10 or 20 Mbps are insufficient. Coaxial cable cannot provide affordable, symmetrical speeds and that’s why fiber broadband is the future, now.

Think about your own internet usage in your home — Zoom meetings, telehealth, uploading homework or the Peloton bike; that’s a lot of bandwidth. You can’t run a home on 125/10, so how do you run a business? For many people, their small business is in the home.

Block Island is building the first municipal fiber network in our state. Last summer, voters overwhelmingly approved an $8 million 20-year bond for broadband so island residents and businesses will have fast, reliable, affordable broadband. A 100/100 Mbps fiber broadband package there is expected to cost $72 a month. It’s far better than coaxial cable, which is twice the cost and is 150/20 Mbps.

 Go to www.speedtest.net and see your download and upload speeds and then check your cable bill to see what you’re actually paying for. 

Rhode Island cannot compete if the states around us are offering fast, reliable, affordable fiber broadband. I believe in the power of technology just as I believe in the future of Rhode Island. The future is now.

Rep. Deborah Ruggiero (D-Dist. 74- Jamestown/Middletown) is chairwoman of the House Innovation, Internet and Technology Committee.

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Suicide prevention bill named for Portsmouth teen signed into law

Bill signing with Gov. McKee, Sen. Seveney, Rep. Cortvriend


STATE HOUSE – Legislation sponsored by Rep. Terri Cortvriend and Sen. James A. Seveney has been signed into law to require all public school districts to adopt suicide prevention policies and train all personnel in suicide awareness and prevention annually.

The Nathan Bruno and Jason Flatt Act (2021-H 53532021-S 0031) will require all school personnel — including teachers, administration, custodians, lunch personnel, substitutes, nurses, coaches, and coaching staff, even if volunteers — to be trained in suicide prevention and awareness. The state Department of Education will establish the guidelines for the training curriculum.

The bill is named for Nathan Bruno, a 15-year-old Portsmouth High School student who took his life in 2018.  Part of the bill is modeled after a state law passed in Tennessee and 19 other states, which was named after Jason Flatt, a 16-year-old from Nashville who died by suicide.

Flanked by Representative Cortvriend, Senator Seveney and Nathan Bruno’s family and friends, Gov. Daniel McKee ceremonially signed the bill Friday at the second annual Be Great For Nate Gala at Ochre Court in Newport.

“Suicide awareness and prevention is critical for students of all ages,” said Senator Seveney (D-11). “We must take action to ensure all adults with whom they interact at school are able to recognize the signs of students who are at risk. Nathan Bruno’s tragic death showed us how important it is for everyone who works with students to recognize the signs and to know how to properly handle those situations. It can save kids’ lives.”

Said Representative Cortvriend (D-72), “Our state and our country are facing alarmingly high rates of suicide. Children of all ages face pressure from all angles in today’s society. Social media, self-acceptance, bullies, drugs and alcohol, athletics, image, relationships, and home issues are just a few of the many pressures our children face every day. Kids need support from the adults in their lives, and this bill strives to ensure the adults they see every day at school are ready to recognize their needs and connect them to help when necessary.”

Several of Bruno’s friends formed a nonprofit called “Be Great for Nate” and an associated program called the Every Student Initiative. They approached the sponsors with the ideas that became this legislation. For more information about the Every Student Initiative and mental health awareness resources, visit bg4n.org/esi.

According to the Department of Health, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Rhode Islanders between the ages of 15 and 34. In 2017, 15.9% of surveyed Rhode Island high school students they had considered suicide and 10.5% said they had attempted suicide. One in nine middle school students surveyed in Rhode Island that year reported having made a suicide plan.

Editorial note: Written from a State House news release.

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Legislation banning guns from school grounds passed by the Senate and the House

STATE HOUSE – Both the Senate and the House today passed legislation which would prohibit anyone, with certain exceptions, from bringing a firearm onto school property.  The Senate version of the bill (2021-S 0073) is sponsored by Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio and the House legislation (2021-H 5555A) is sponsored by Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian.

The bills are named The Harold M. Metts School Safety Act of 2021 in honor of its longtime champion in the Senate.  Whip Kazarian has introduced the legislation for the past several sessions.

“Guns do not belong in schools, and private citizens have no business bringing a gun on school property,” said President Ruggerio (D-Dist. 4, North Providence, Providence). “Citizens carrying firearms in schools increases risk, not safety. There have been dozens of examples of mishandling and accidental discharge of firearms in schools across our nation.  We are working hard to improve education in our state. The presence of firearms in schools is detrimental to a positive learning environment.”            

“Our nation has suffered so many horrific and tragic school shootings. Every parent deserves an assurance that no one is allowed to enter their child’s school armed. Guns simply have no place in schools, and we shouldn’t accept a situation that allows anyone outside the police to carry them there,” said Whip Kazarian (D-Dist. 63, East Providence). “This legislation give schools the same protections already afforded to the Rhode Island Convention Center, our post offices as well as our very own State House.”

“My Office prosecutes hundreds of gun crimes every year and it is through that experience that I have seen the trauma caused by gun violence,” said Attorney General Peter F. Neronha. “The Harold M. Metts School Safety Act is a common-sense step that lowers the risk of gun violence and enhances the safety of anyone in and around our schools. I applaud the work of Senate President Ruggerio, Representative Kazarian, the General Assembly, my fellow general officers, and advocates for their work in passing this important piece of legislation.”

This legislation would prohibit the possession of firearms on school grounds except for peace officers, retired law enforcement officers, persons under contract to provide school security services, and unloaded firearms in locked containers or a locked rack in a motor vehicle.

The legislation would apply to the property of any public or private elementary or secondary school, including school buses. Activities that would be exempt from the proposed law include firearm instruction and/or safety courses; government-sponsored military-related programs such as ROTC; interscholastic shooting and/or marksmanship events; military history and firearms collection courses; and the use of blank guns used in theatrical or athletic events.

President Ruggerio’s bill now heads to the House of Representatives for consideration and Whip Kazarian’s bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Note: Written from a State House news release.

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LTE— Why Broadband Matters to You and Your Family

by Rep. Deborah Ruggiero

COVID-19 has been the most convincing argument for Rhode Island to invest in high-speed internet, or dedicated broadband. Whether for remote working from home, distance learning or telehealth, broadband access must be reliable, fast and affordable. You wouldn’t buy a house or relocate your business without access to water or electricity. High-speed internet in a 21st economy is a necessary utility (although Rhode Island state law preempts any regulation of internet or telecoms- a story for later).

Rhode Island citizens and small businesses need high-speed, low-cost and reliable broadband service and not coaxial cable that’s shared with several hundred other homes or businesses, causing buffering and spotty coverage. Fiber-optic broadband is amazingly fast because it’s laser and doesn’t use electrical signals; so you don’t lose internet connectivity during an electrical outage.

Ten years ago, Rhode Island received $20 million in federal dollars and the state added $10 million to build out an amazing 48 strands of fiber-optic, high-speed broadband - 8,000 miles of broadband fiber running throughout this little state. Yet, only 10 strands of fiber-optic are being used for our hospitals, colleges, universities, libraries, and schools. We have a technology highway without any on/off ramps for residents, businesses, and municipalities to access.

Internet providers say, “RI has access to more broadband than any other state in the country; 98% of homes have fiber-optic broadband running outside their front door.” Yes, we do; it’s the middle mile of 48 strand of fiber. If only we could access it without paying exorbitant rates.

Lots and lots of federal funds will be flowing into every state across America for broadband infrastructure. But the federal dollars will only go to states that have a dedicated broadband coordinator or state entity that that can access, administer, and oversee the federal broadband funds.

As of this writing, Rhode Island still does not have a broadband coordinator, which means it is losing out on federal broadband dollars and has been for the past seven years. That’s why I’ve sponsored H5138, a broadband bill that needs to pass this legislative session to get our state off the bench into the technology broadband game. Rhode Island is one of only two states in the country without a broadband coordinator (Mississippi is the other).

A dedicated broadband coordinator in Commerce RI tells municipalities and the private sector that Rhode Island is serious about broadband. This broadband coordinator in my bill H5148 could access and administer federal dollars to help community-led projects like the one we’re working on for Aquidneck Island. It’s a pilot program that could be a municipal model for other local governments, business and nonprofits.

New Hampshire and Massachusetts are making a push to get people to live in those states and work remotely because they have invested in dedicated fiber-optic broadband. Here in RI, we’re losing businesses in Newport County because of the low internet speeds and high-costs of coaxial cable internet.

Community-led broadband projects (MA, NH, Utah, Hawaii, etc) are backed by revenue bonds, which are paid off by subscribers’ fees and dues- taxpayers pay nothing. A group of municipalities in Utah formed a nonprofit government entity (UTOPIA) that leases the broadband to ISPs (Cox, Verizon, Comcast, Opencape, etc) that can offer services to end users. Benefits include a GIG of service (not megabits!), creates competition from several different ISPs on the UTOPIA network making pricing affordable, and Utopia is developing in rural areas where many big profit-driven telecoms can forget about.

It’s time Rhode Island creates the on/off ramps to access the 8,000 miles of fiber-optic that’s running throughout this state. Market competition will do more for the economy than any government regulation could ever do!

###

Rep. Deb Ruggiero (D-73, Jamestown/Middletown) is chair of the House Committee on Innovation, Internet, Technology and she serves on House Finance Committee.

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Testimony for RI House Judiciary on H5555

H5555 — Support

I urge the Committee to support H5555 as a parent and a member of the RI Coalition Against Gun Violence, an organization representing more than 100 groups and 120,000 Rhode Islanders.

RI General Law 11-47-60 already bans concealed weapons on school grounds. All this bill does is clarify that law’s scope. Concealed weapons present a constant unavoidable risk. According to the CDC, in 2015 (the last year for which data is available) there were 17,311 reported unintentional gunshot injuries. That’s 47 firearm accidents every day.

Arguments that permit holders would protect students and staff are deeply suspect. Applicants in Rhode Island only need to put 30 rounds in a 14-inch target at 25 yards every four years. There is no requirement for training in real-world tactical scenarios — or even drawing from concealment — nothing that would prepare them for the complex, high-stress situation of an active shooter.

Even in the hands of trained professionals, friendly fire and collateral damage are significant risks. According to a RAND corporation study, trained police officers only hit their targets roughly 30% of the time; in an active firefight, that number dropped to 18%. Adding more guns in the hands of the untrained in crowded school rooms and hallways is not a move in a safer direction. 

The argument you will hear from gun advocates that this is a solution to a problem that does not exist. No incidents have happened in schools, they say, therefore, this bill is unnecessary. Imagine that you are one of the airlines flying the Boeing 737 Max. Before the two fatal crashes, there was no felt need to train pilots on the particulars of its flight control system. It flew without incident for two years, during which time, supporters could point to the safety record and argue that no action was necessary. But there was, always, a lurking flaw that required the right combination of events to prove fatal. I urge the committee: please, do not make the same mistake. Please do not wait for a tragic accident to expose this inherent flaw; close this loophole now.

Because, ultimately, it is the General Assembly which has the power to address this. Even the Supreme Court’s Heller decision, which is extremely favorable to Second Amendment rights, specifically says, “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on…laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools.” Article XII of the Rhode Island Constitution gives the General Assembly authority over education, saying “it shall be the duty of the general assembly…to adopt all means…necessary and proper.” 

As the “school committee” for the state, the General Assembly as a whole has a Constitutionally mandated duty to consider this bill. I may not know much about how things work at the State House, but back home in Portsmouth, if a group of concerned citizens representing 10 percent of the town asked to put an item on the agenda for the whole Council to consider, it would get a vote. I simply ask this committee to do the same. 

John McDaid
Portsmouth

References
CDC data https://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/nfirates.html
Rand study via Time Magazine: http://nation.time.com/2013/09/16/ready-fire-aim-the-science-behind-police-shooting-bystanders/
DC v. Heller: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/07pdf/07-290.pdf see p. 54

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LTE: Urgent action needed to serve adults with intellectual/developmental disabilities

By Rep. Terri Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown)

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit hardest the areas and populations that were already struggling, since they had the fewest resources for adaptation and safety. We’ve seen the outsized effects on the poor and on minorities. Another group that it has been disproportionately hurt is adults with intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DD).

Here in Rhode Island, adults with I/DD have not been provided adequate resources for many years. In recent days, a federal judge issued an order requiring the state to quickly craft a plan to address 16 barriers that are preventing decent services, after years of failure to meet the terms of a previous consent decree to improve. The pandemic has made a bad situation far worse, shutting down most day programs and employment opportunities, leaving this very vulnerable population without critical supports. Residents and underpaid staff at group homes have been at risk for illness, and those living at home face isolation and a reduction or loss of in-home support services. Agencies that serve them, which have mostly operated on the financial brink for years, are in danger of going under permanently.

The challenges of the pandemic and recovery from it threaten the already sub-par progress the state has made toward fixing this system. A Senate task force led by my colleague and fellow Aquidneck Islander, Sen. Louis DiPalma, has been shedding light on the obstacles, which include a fee-for-service structure that discourages innovation and integration.

Rhode Island must do better for its residents with I/DD. Every individual served is a deserving person whose needs include meaningful activities that support their personal goals and a valued role in their communities. 

I urge my colleagues in the House to get on board with the Senate, where Sen. DiPalma has long worked to call attention to the need for better funding and a more workable system of supports for adults with I/DD. We need to join him in fully recognizing and supporting the importance of the work that must be done to provide enriching and effective services to Rhode Islanders with I/DD. We may be deeply ashamed of our state’s history – from the not so distant past – of “dumping” people with I/DD at the notorious Ladd School, but have we really come very far if we are not providing them with the means they need to have a fulfilling life in the community?

Chief Judge John J. McConnell  Jr. of the U.S. District Court has issued an order requiring drastic changes. We must break out of the old way of funding services based on congregate care. Undoubtedly, it will initially take additional support to make the changes in the short term. But it may save money in the long term, enabling more people to leave congregate care settings and lead meaningful, productive lives within their community.&nbsp

I look forward to ensuring that this need is given the attention it deserves in the House.

Rep. Terri Cortvriend is a Democrat who represents District 72 in Portsmouth and Middletown.

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LTE: Action needed to avoid an eviction crisis

By Sen. Dawn Euer and Rep. Jason Knight

Rep. Knight, Sen. EuerRhode Island is on the precipice of a cataclysmic housing disaster stemming from the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. But swift, decisive action would avert this crisis.

On Monday, the courts will open and landlords may begin filing for evictions, although in some situations renters may have protections until July. With over 230,000 new unemployment claims since March 9, and a record 17-percent unemployment rate, vast numbers of Rhode Islanders are likely on the verge of losing their housing. When Virginia reopened its courts two weeks ago, it had over 800 eviction proceedings already scheduled. Rhode Island, with the fourth-highest unemployment rate in the nation, is likely to experience a similar avalanche.

Renters are more likely than homeowners to live paycheck to paycheck, at risk of financial ruin if their income stops. While the moratorium has protected them up to now, if they’ve been unable to pay rent for several months, it’s unlikely they can pay those months of back rent to avoid eviction.

Rhode Island can use a portion of its $1.25 billion federal COVID-19 response funding for emergency rent assistance. Quickly establishing an Eviction Diversion Court – really, just a special District Court calendar to handle evictions – would create a means to provide tenants legal counsel, require mediation and provide the financial assistance necessary to prevent eviction.

We appreciate the courts’ and the administration’s efforts in this arena so far, and urge them to act swiftly to save tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of Rhode Islanders from homelessness.

Sen. Dawn Euer (D-13) represents Newport and Jamestown, and Rep. Jason Knight (D-67) represents Barrington and Warren

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LTE: Rhode Island needs real environmental action in 2020

Reps Speakman, Donovan, Cassar, Cortvriend, Carson


By Rep. June S. Speakman, Rep. Susan R. Donovan, Rep. Liana Cassar, Rep. Terri Cortvriend and Rep. Lauren Carson

In virtually all the predictions of what will be hot in the 2020 General Assembly session, there has been little mention of environmental policy. It is imperative that we make progress in 2020 on several fronts including plastics pollution, sea level rise, renewable energy, sustaining a clean water supply and waste management.

The foundation of Rhode Island’s economy —tourism, small business, boating, fisheries — depends on its policymakers looking beyond the current budget cycle and providing a reliable funding stream for these efforts. We also have the opportunity to recognize the innovation, growth and job creation that will come to our state when we embrace these priorities.

Our coastlines are being threatened by sea level rise. The Coastal Resources Management Council provides Rhode Island with maps predicting a changed shoreline in every coastal community.  We must improve the capacity of local communities to respond to these changes by offering education, technical assistance and funding to support resilience and adaption. There is no need to spend any more time questioning the probability of sea level rise. It’s happening.

Off the coast of Rhode Island is a sustainable resource that is becoming a driver of economic growth: wind power. Policymakers must seize the opportunity to ensure that this green industry has the support it needs to grow in a way that respects the needs of those who use the waters for fishing and boating.  Governor Raimondo’s mention of this in her State of the State address is a good sign, as is her commitment to 100% renewable electricity by 2030.

Rhode Island’s water supply needs long-term planning and policymakers’ attention. From the reservoirs close to the beach in Newport County, to the cross-bay pipeline that serves the East Bay, to the PFAS-polluted wells in Burrillville, our drinking water faces continued risk. The General Assembly must join with the governor to study these risks and provide stable, long-term funding to address them.

As we all know, Rhode Island faces a grave waste-management problem. The Central Landfill is nearing capacity; the town of Johnston cannot be expected to bear the burden of significant expansion. There is an easy mid-term solution here: produce less waste.  At relatively low cost, the state can lead the nation in cutting our waste significantly by limiting the distribution of single-use plastic bags, straws and Styrofoam. We can also establish an aggressive statewide composting program to divert food waste and yard waste from the landfill to our renewed small-farming sector and our own home gardens.

All these issues require our policymakers’ immediate attention, stable funding and focused planning. If we are to protect our precious resources and secure a sustainable, healthy future for our beautiful state, the time to act is now.

Rep. June S. Speakman (D-Dist. 68, Warren, Bristol), Rep. Susan R. Donovan (D-Dist. 69, Bristol, Portsmouth), Rep. Liana Cassar (D-Dist. 66, Barrington, East Providence), Rep. Terri Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown) and Rep. Lauren H. Carson (D-Dist. 75, Newport) all represent coastal communities and share deep concern for the environment.

 

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Sen. Seveney intros drink-driving fine to support substance abuse programs

Portsmouth Sen. Jim Seveney (D-11) has introduced legislation that would impose a substance abuse fine for those who drive under the influence or fail to submit to a breathalyzer test.

The legislation (2019-S 0238) would impose a $300 fine on any conviction of driving under the influence or a violation for refusal to submit to a Breathalyzer that would fund substance abuse programs.

Senator Seveney submitted the legislation after touring the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal and discussing the need for increased funding for substance abuse prevention programs with Chief Magistrate Domenic DiSandro III.

“I’d like to thank Chief Magistrate DiSandro and Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey for their assistance in developing this alternative funding stream,” said Seveney. “This legislation will require those who drink and drive to fund important substance abuse programs, which in turn will help to mitigate the incidence of driving under the influence.”

Those funds would be allocated to the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Development Disabilities and Hospitals and used to fund substance abuse programs and student assistance programs for youth.

The legislation, which is cosponsored by Senators McCaffrey (D-29), Cynthia Coyne (D-32), Lou DiPalma (D-12) and Adam Satchell (D-9), has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Similar legislation (2019-H 5293) has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Dennis Canario (D-71).

Editorial note: Written from a state house news release.

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Sen. Seveney appointed Finance subcommittee chair

Portsmouth Sen. Jim Seveney (D-11), a member of the RI Senate Finance Committee, has been appointed chair of the  Subcommittee on Public Safety and Transportation.

William J. Conley, Jr., Chair of Finance, appointed several members of the committee as subcommittee chairs. The subcommittee chairs will take the lead during budget hearings related to their subcommittee’s purview. Additionally, committee members with special expertise or interest in a particular subject matter will be asked to take a leading role when the committee considers those matters. In a process that is new this year, public postings of Finance Committee hearings will reflect the leadership roles of the members.

“Senate President Ruggerio and I discussed ways to draw upon the resident expertise of the outstanding membership of the Senate Finance Committee, and these appointments are a result of those discussions. We are fortunate to have their valuable leadership on the committee as we delve into the details of the state budget and other matters,” said Chairman Conley (D-18). “I look forward to working closely with the subcommittee chairs, the members of the committee, and all of my colleagues in the Senate as we undertake the hard work ahead.”

The following Senators were also appointed as subcommittee chairs:

  • Subcommittee on Municipal Finance: Senator Sandra Cano (D-8).
  • Subcommittee on Health & Human Services and General Government: Senator Lou DiPalma (D-12). Sen. DiPalma is also 1st Vice Chairman of the Committee.
  • Subcommittee on Veterans’ Affairs: Senator Walter Felag, Jr. (D -10). Sen, Felag is also 2nd Vice Chairman of the Committee.
  • Subcommittee on Education, Commerce: Senator Ryan Pearson (D-19). Sen. Pearson is also Secretary of the Committee.
  • Subcommittee on Agriculture, Environment and Energy: Senator V. Susan Sosnowski (D-37).

Editorial note: Written from a State House news release.

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