Rhode Island Works to Bring Broadband to All Residents

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, August 18, 2023

Weekly Digest

Rhode Island Works to Bring Broadband to All Residents

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of August 14-18, 2023

Grace Tepper

“Reliable, accessible, and affordable internet is a necessity for everyday life, and we must eliminate economic barriers to obtaining a stable connection.”
—Governor Dan McKee (D-RI)

The Ocean State has long supported expanding broadband access, adoption and application for its residents. Capitalizing on funding from the COVID-19 pandemic, Rhode Island established programs to keep kids in school, enable aging residents to take advantage of online resources, and bolster state opportunities in tech.

“During the pandemic, households had increased reliance on broadband connections as access became essential for employment, education and daily activities,” said Governor Dan McKee (D-RI).

Now, with Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act broadband deployment and digital equity funding coming down the pike, Rhode Island has already articulated how it plans to achieve universal broadband.

In August 2022, Rhode Island set its overarching goal:

Leverage best-in-class, resilient, sustainable, and scalable broadband infrastructure to propel the state’s 21st-century economics, education, healthcare, civic and social engagement, and quality of life, by ensuring all Rhode Islanders have access to affordable, accessible high-speed internet in their homes, at their places of employment, and at public facilities by 2027.

In the year since, the state has created the ConnectRI Initiative to maximize state planning for universal broadband achievement and continues its efforts to close the digital divide.

Rhode Island's Digital Divide

As of August 2022, infrastructure existed to deliver broadband service of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds to 98.6% of the state, making Rhode Island one of the most connected states in the nation. But very few areas in the state have access to 100 Mbps upload speeds. According to BroadbandNow, an estimated 84.2% of Rhode Islanders have fiber service available, but may be beholden to only a single provider of fiber-based service. The ideal would be for multiple options of providers for all residents and businesses to access fiber-based service.

While the state’s basic broadband infrastructure is robust, the cost of service is too high for many of our state’s small businesses and stands as a barrier to service adoption for many Rhode Islanders. Approximately 25 percent of households in the state do not subscribe to wired broadband at home. For households earning less than $20,000 per year, more than 33 percent do not subscribe to any type of broadband service. Additionally, a 2022 survey by Skills for RI’s Future found that half of the respondents said they cannot afford a home broadband connection.

Rhode Island Broadband and Digital Equity Strategic Plan

The Office of Broadband and Digital Equity, housed under Rhode Island Commerce, is in charge of helping close the state's digital divide. In August 2022, the office released its Broadband and Digital Equity Strategic Plan. The plan takes stock of the current state of connectivity in Rhode Island and sets forth the state’s goals and principles for the disbursement of federal funds––namely from the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program and the Digital Equity Act––as well as the primary work streams that RI Commerce and the Office of Broadband and Digital Equity will pursue to develop the new ConnectRI Initiative.

The plan includes three main goals:

  1. Expand fiber infrastructure in the state.
  2. Eliminate cost as a barrier.
  3. Foster an inclusive digital advancement ecosystem.

Through ConnectRI, and with input from a newly formed Broadband Advisory Council, Rhode Island will develop specific metrics to track performance against each of these high-level goals, and those metrics may inform priorities for the use of funds. As the Office of Broadband and Digital Equity works to achieve those goals, it will do so with an eye toward the following principles:

  • Cultivate strong implementation partnerships.
  • Meet communities where they are.
  • Enable participatory planning.
  • Pace and prioritize actions for impact.
  • Build and maintain reliable data systems for decision-making.


According to the 2022 strategic plan, the Office of Broadband and Digital Equity will work with the Broadband Advisory Council and all Rhode Island stakeholders to develop its strategic plan into the ConnectRI initiative. Federal funding for Rhode Island's Five-Year Action Plan for universal broadband availability and Statewide Digital Equity Plan – together, the ConnectRI plan – include specific requirements for the state to determine how it will ensure all Rhode Islanders can connect to broadband service and address barriers to digital equity. The ConnectRI initiative splits its focus into four objectives.

1. Broadband and Digital Equity Data Sources

Rhode Island is evaluating new service availability data from the Federal Communications National Broadband Map, ensuring that that data matches the experience of Rhode Island residents and businesses. Additionally, a statewide Digital Equity Survey will help identify barriers to digital equity that Rhode Islanders experience – including the more than 750,000 Rhode Islanders who are part of "Covered Populations" as defined in the Digital Equity Act [namely households with incomes at or below 150% of the federal poverty line, individuals aged 60 or older, members of racial and ethnic minorities or rural communities, as well as veterans and individuals who are incarcerated or have a disability or language barrier]. Another initial data collection effort will be to catalog physical assets that may facilitate more cost-effective broadband infrastructure deployments, including the presence of open-access fiber infrastructure and other real estate assets that can host broadband infrastructure and equipment.

ConnectRI has launched two surveys for all Rhode Islanders to help understand the state's digital divide and plan its funding objectives for federal programs. These surveys are the Rhode Island Internet Connectivity Survey and the Digital Inclusion Asset Mapping Survey.

2. Broadband Infrastructure Investment Program

The largest portion of the funds that the state will receive from the federal government will be used to improve the extent and quality of broadband infrastructure in Rhode Island. The first priority for these funds will be to ensure that no household or business remains unserved. To do this, Rhode Island will work to maximize the private sector or municipal funding match for these investments – BEAD requires a funding match of at least 25 percent - while also seeking to embed affordable service guarantees into these investments. The state expects to have the majority of its BEAD allocation and all of its Capital Projects Fund allocation for broadband infrastructure left to connect unserved households and then prioritize underconnected households and businesses. Any new infrastructure delivered with funding from the Capital Projects Fund will be capable of delivering at least 100/100 Mbps, and will be scalable to multi-gigabit symmetrical speed over time.

A statewide Broadband Infrastructure Investment Program will be open to broadband providers, local governments or regional consortia, or public-private partnerships. Rhode Island may make its Capital Project Fund allocation available as the local match for BEAD, if necessary. ConnectRI will develop planning processes and evaluation criteria targeting the goals and informed by the principles established in its strategic plan. ConnectRI will focus on connecting residents and businesses who are more difficult to serve through market-based solutions alone. This includes populations living in affordable housing, as well as interconnected small businesses and community anchor institutions.

3. Digital Advancement Grant Program

Rhode Island plans to use portions of its Digital Equity Capacity Grant, and potentially portions of its BEAD allocation, Capital Project Fund allocation, and other digital inclusion and advancement funding sources from the federal government for a statewide Digital Advancement Grant Program. These grants will be designed to address barriers to digital equity throughout the state and may be used to help scale existing programs, create new programs, or support the development of community facilities that help to achieve the state’s broadband and digital equity goals. While the Digital Advancement Grant Program will be designed to ensure the provision of digital inclusion services to populations in need throughout the state, it may also be used to ensure that covered populations not only have access to the basics – affordable broadband service, devices, digital literacy, and tech support – but that they can also participate in more advanced digital skill-building programs that can promote equitable participation in Rhode Island’s growing advanced technology industries that need more digitally-skilled workers. The program will focus on fostering an inclusive digital advancement ecosystem, in both the near- and long-term: prospective grantees will be asked to demonstrate how their programs can be self-sustaining after one-time sources of federal funds are depleted.

4. Technical Assistance Program for Delivery Partners

Realizing the full potential of the Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Program and the Digital Advancement Grant Program will require a parallel effort to ensure that delivery partners have the capacity necessary to deliver and the toolkits and resource guides that can help ensure consistently exceptional quality of delivery in every community across the state. Types of technical assistance that local governments and other delivery partners may seek from the Office of Broadband and Digital Equity may include, for example:

  • Tools for mapping service quality, infrastructure, and pricing; funding or personnel to understand barriers to digital equity or advancement among households and businesses;
  • Understanding how locally-owned infrastructure and facilities may be used for broadband infrastructure deployments; best practices for improving permitting to facilitate broadband infrastructure;
  • Models and templates for entering into public-private partnerships;
  • Content or partnerships for device access, tech support, digital literacy, and skill-building; or
  • Access to other resources and best practices from across the state, around the nation, or across the globe.

As part of the ConnectRI planning process, the Office of Broadband and Digital Equity will determine which of these technical assistance efforts it may provide directly to Rhode Island communities, and which it may provide funding for locally based delivery partners to provide. Unlike the Broadband Infrastructure Investment Program and the Digital Advancement Grant Program, this Technical Assistance Program may begin in 2023 to help locally based organizations determine how they may best serve as delivery partners for broadband and digital equity to the state.

Additional State Programs Towards Universal Broadband

Over the last few years, Rhode Island has created a number of additional programs to help residents access, afford and apply the benefits of the internet .

Increasing Affordable Connectivity Program Adoption

On May 23, 2023, Gov McKee announced a statewide initiative to increase awareness of the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). In partnership with nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, the initiative aims to build a coalition of local stakeholders and trusted institutions to overcome complex awareness, trust, and enrollment barriers that prevent underserved households from enrolling. Participants will include housing authorities, nonprofits, school districts, libraries, and internet service providers. The new initiative will leverage state channels to directly promote the ACP to households in these programs and fund local governments, community-based organizations, and trusted institutions to reach unconnected households.


Rhode Island's DigiAGE Program, housed within the state's Office of Healthy Aging, aims to bridge this digital divide for older adults, linking them to the technology and virtual opportunities that underpin modern life and help keep us all, ya know, connected. The main focus of the program is to improve device access, internet connectivity, training programs for digital skills, and online content access for aging Rhode Island residents. The program is a partnership of industry, government, and community, with numerous organizations working in tandem to achieve these goals.

Community Development Block Grant Program

As part of Rhode Island's Community Development Block Grant Program, the state helps to provide internet access to unserved public housing residents. While the program supports a myriad of activities including housing, economic development, facilities/improvements, services, and planning—the program's priorities are housing, economic development and neighborhood revitalization. In December 2021, Gov McKee announced a $980,000 Community Development Block Grant to provide fixed wireless broadband service to about 600 residential units, almost 1,200 residents. The grant will also add internet capacity to the center, which is used by organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of Newport County. In 2022, Gov McKee announced $11.8 million in funding for the Community Development Block Grant Program for eligible uses, including broadband.

Remote Work Grant Program

During the COVID-19 pandemic, former-Governor Gina Raimondo (D-RI) [who now serves as the U.S. Secretary of Commerce] created the Remote Work Grant Program to expand access to and the efficacy of remote work to further fight the spread of COVID-19. The program funds helped support the purchase of things like laptops and printers, subscriptions to necessary software products, and/or internet access. The program used funds from federal CARES Act funding, and in December 2020, had distributed more than $1.6 million in resources to 123 businesses in more than 20 cities and towns.

Federal Broadband Support for Rhode Island

Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program

Through the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, the Narragansett Indian Tribe was provided $2.5 million to increase broadband services and access for Tribal members who reside on ancestral lands in Washington County, Rhode Island. The project aims to provide distance learning capabilities and strengthen digital literacy, improve broadband speeds and affordability of services for community members, and generate workforce development and job creation. 

The project will implement activities aimed at addressing challenges faced by the Narragansett India Tribe in addition to enabling better use of the Tribe’s FCC 2.5 GHz license. The key activities include:

  • Purchase equipment and services to install, own, and operate high-speed fixed broadband equipment on existing infrastructure owned or lease by the Tribe that will provide better, more affordable, broadband coverage with speeds up to 1 Gbps;
  • Purchase laptop computers for 258 Tribal school-age children; and
  • Generate training and employment opportunities for Tribal members. Project implementation anticipates the hiring of a general manager responsible for general oversight and accountability for broadband services expansion. Additional roles include IT personnel, accounting, sales, and customer support.

The programs created by the grant funding will help serve a Tribal population of approximately 3,400 individuals and specifically 700 Tribal members who attend public schools in Washington County.

Capital Projects Fund

The U.S. Treasury approved $112 million in federal funds for broadband infrastructure and multi-purpose community facility projects in Rhode Island under the American Rescue Plan’s Capital Projects Fund (CPF). The July 18, 2023 announcement included two funding plans: $25 million for broadband infrastructure and $81.7 million for multi-purpose community facilities.

Rhode Island estimates that this funding will connect 7,500 homes and businesses to affordable, high-speed internet and serve about 30 percent of locations still lacking high-speed internet across the state. The funding will go toward the ConnectRI Broadband Deployment Program, a competitive grant program designed to fund last-mile broadband infrastructure projects in areas that currently lack access to internet at speeds of 100/20 Mbps.

Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program

In November 2022, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) awarded Rhode Island $5 million for BEAD Program planning, funding various activities including:

  • Identification of unserved and underserved locations;

  • Capacity-building and employee training of the state broadband office;

  • Asset mapping across Rhode Island to catalog high-speed Internet adoption, affordability, equity, access and deployment;

  • Support for the Rhode Island Broadband Development Program, including a 5-year action plan and enhancing a previous statewide assessment of infrastructure and Internet service availability;

  • Refining state goals, principles, priorities and strategies for digital equity; and

  • Reaching more than 3,000 people to better understand barriers to Internet access, affordability, adoption, digital literacy, online privacy and cybersecurity, and access to digital opportunities and devices.

In total, Rhode Island has been awarded over $108.7 million from the BEAD Program to deploy or upgrade broadband networks to ensure that everyone has access to reliable, affordable, high-speed Internet service. The state is expected to release its Draft BEAD Five-Year Action Plan, including updates on its previous strategic plan and programs, in August 2023.

Digital Equity Act

NTIA approved $500,000 in Digital Equity Act planning funds for Rhode Island to:

  • Develop a statewide digital equity plan;
  • Engage local and regional stakeholders on Internet access and equity issues; and
  • Conduct a digital equity survey and coordinate with local governments to ensure statewide outreach.

Rhode Island is expected to release its draft Digital Equity Plan in November 2023.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Aug 19––National ACP Sign-Up Day Kick-Off (Black Churches 4 Digital Equity)

Aug 20––Fiber Connect 2023 (Fiber Broadband Association)

Aug 23––FirstNet Authority Board Meeting (First Responder Network Authority)

Sept 7––Disability Advisory Committee Meeting (FCC)

Sept 27-28––Oregon Infrastructure Summit (Business Oregon)

Oct 2-6––Digital Inclusion Week 2023 (NDIA)

Oct 24––41st Annual Everett C. Parker Lecture & Awards Breakfast (United Church of Christ Media Justice Ministry)

Oct 26––Oregon Connections: Navigating the Funding Flood. (Oregon Connections)

Nov 15-17––U.S. Broadband Summit (Fierce)

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang
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Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
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