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Connecting Rhode Island Means Overcoming Inaccurate Data, Leveraging Public Housing Partnerships to Reach Low-Income Residents

In March 2021, an anonymous Newport resident with a stable internet connection described Rhode Island’s digital divide as a major issue. In the author’s words

I see the effects of Newport’s digital divide every day in my work since the inequity especially affects low-income, Black, Indigenous, people of color, and seniors in Newport. Those in the North End are still living with poor Internet and cell service.

Rhode Island residents in eight of the state’s 39 cities and towns (in Bristol and Newport Counties) have only one Internet service provider. 25% of Rhode Islanders are without Internet service. The Ocean State has 48 strands of fiber-optic running statewide. Yet fewer than ten strands are used for hospitals, universities, colleges, schools, and libraries. 

The State and Town governments are taking innovative and collaborative approaches to ensure that residents, businesses, and municipalities have access to fiber-optic broadband. For example, Connect Greater Newport is working to extend fiber service to Aquidneck Island. This regional economic development initiative includes municipalities, businesses, and nonprofits working together to look at municipal broadband. 

“Rhode Island is one of only two states in the nation without a broadband coordinator. My legislation gets us into the game so we can leverage federal dollars for innovative partnerships with municipalities for broadband access residents and businesses,” says Rep. Deborah Ruggiero (Middletown/Jamestown) who chairs the House Committee on Innovation, Internet, and Technology. “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.”  

While some Rhode Islanders lack service because there are no providers who reach their location, low-income families are more likely to lack a connection because they simply cannot afford a subscription, requisite devices, or necessary training. Rhode Island has 25,000 low-income households. According to Cox Communications, only 5,000 families are accessing their low-income program. Consequently, in February 2021, RIHousing announced a new grant program that will provide $250,000 in funding to municipalities for innovative, long-term projects that improve Internet access for low- and moderate-income households.

Two years prior, in 2019, RIHousing and the Department of Innovation announced a public-private digital inclusion partnership known as ConnectRI. Local partners in the initiative include Providence Housing Authority and Providence Public Library. Working together with national nonprofits, local housing authorities developed programs to provide residents with devices, Internet subsidies, and digital literacy training.

Rhode Island is also tackling the digital divide by providing students, educators, and librarians with the resources they need to connect residents through a coalition called EduvateRI. When distance learning began in 2020, the group responded to emerging needs through the Highlander Institute, which established a hotline for teachers who needed technical support early on in the pandemic. Shortly after, the governor’s Office launched a similar hotline for parents.

NCC member town New Shoreham is home to the state’s first municipal network, which connects anchor institutions, like schools and libraries, with fiber broadband access. Additionally, the Town committed to building a fiber network to serve homes and businesses that currently rely on slower DSL and satellite services.

In 2020, New Shoreham’s then-First Warden wrote a letter to the FCC requesting that it review provider data submitted in an area that remains unserved and where the Town planned to expand its network on Block Island. Inaccurate information about broadband infrastructure availability has persistently hindered Rhode Island communities from addressing gaps in deployment. The letter states that “the loss of possible annual support associated with these locations may jeopardize our community’s ability to move forward with this critical project.”

Though the Federal Communications Commission’s Fixed Broadband Deployment map shows that nearly all Rhode Islanders have high-speed broadband access, making them ineligible for federal funding programs that target unserved and underserved areas, local and state officials know that connectivity gaps remain pervasive and persistent. 

Rhode Island’s approach to connecting low-income residents through housing programs is exemplary of the ways that flexible-use funding can support connectivity projects. In January 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) clarified that Community Development Block Grant funding may be used for broadband infrastructure and digital literacy programs. Then, in January 2021, HUD’s Office of Public and Indian Housing released guidelines explaining that public housing funds can also cover connectivity projects. 

As COVID-19 has shown, access to high-quality, affordable broadband is as essential as housing, water, and electricity. State and local officials in Rhode Island are taking the first step to ensure that all residents have the technology they need to live and thrive.   

Additional Resources:

Rhode Island American Jobs Plan fact sheet 

Op-Ed: Why Broadband Matters to You and Your Family by Rep. Deborah Ruggiero

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