Ruggiero, Carson, Cortvriend question whether Cox investment is more than PR stunt
STATE HOUSE – Aquidneck Island-area representatives Deborah Ruggiero, Lauren H. Carson and Terri Cortvriend today questioned whether the investment announced yesterday by Cox Communications will actually deliver the company’s promise of 10 gigabyte service across the state after years of underinvestment.
Yesterday the company announced it planned to spend $120 million over three years to expand the state’s broadband network, including at least $20 million on Aquidneck Island and Jamestown.
Residents of the islands have long had issues with slow, frequently disconnecting internet service, which is available only through Cox.
While the three representatives welcomed the investment in broadband, they say the amount involved sounds like an effort to catch up on years of neglect rather than to propel broadband service into the future in the island communities.
“It’s commendable that the incumbent cable company is finally investing to upgrade their infrastructure. 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? 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?” said Representative Ruggiero (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown), who leads the House Innovation, Internet and Technology Committee, and who has been advocating for several years for broadband access expansion across the state, but particularly on the underserved islands.
In 2010, Rhode Island used public funding to construct a 48-strand fiberoptic broadband “highway” that could connect to homes and businesses all over the state. Building the “last-mile” connections to customers, was left to Cox, which now controls the infrastructure.
A recent study by Connect Greater Newport found that 40% of the populated square miles of Rhode Island meet the federal definition of “underserved” in terms of broadband speed. All of islands are either underserved or have no broadband access at all.
Said Representative Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Middletown, Portsmouth), “Is this really enough money to address the years of neglect? 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. What I find interesting is Cox is saying, ‘Internally, the company had to wait for the infrastructure to be available for the build-out.’ Are they saying they had to wait for the federal dollars to be available before they’d actually do upgrades on Aquidneck Island? I’m sure the Connect Greater Newport broadband study on the 40% of residents and businesses underserved got their attention.”
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 use millions more from the American Rescue Plan.
“Over the past five years, my Newport constituents have repeatedly contacted me about the poor quality of internet service and the spiraling cost of cable and internet. We need competition on Aquidneck Island for our businesses, residents, and our municipalities. 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. It’s really a PR smokescreen,” said Representative Carson (D-Dist. 75, Newport).
Representative Ruggiero said the situation on the islands, and the newly available federal funds, are reasons the state should enact a proposal she has championed for years to create a state council and dedicated staff in the state Commerce Corporation to more effectively advocate for the state’s broadband needs, rather than relying on the incumbent provider.
“Now more than ever, the Rhode Island Broadband Advisory Council is needed for the state to coalesce around technology trends and create roadmaps for municipalities to access federal dollars and for how a private cable company can partner with a public entity for innovative fiber broadband over the next four to five years. The public demands transparency as the state receives hundreds of millions of federal dollars to deploy fiber broadband. We need to invest fairly and smartly to build an innovate future and I look forward to working with all our partners,” said Representative Ruggiero.