NEWPORT — Tommy Sheehan, president of the Hi-Lo Neighborhood Association, saw kids struggling to do homework in Donovan Manor and other public housing complexes during the early days of the COVID pandemic because they did not have an internet connection.
That’s when he began his crusade to provide internet service for the residents of the Donovan Manor high-rise building on Chapel Street and the single-story low-rise buildings of Chapel Terrace across the street, as well as for other Newport Housing Authority residents at developments like Park Holm.
“We want to create a digital bridge for everyone, so all our residents are totally on equal footing,” Sheehan said of the nearly two-year effort.
That vision is now going to be realized thanks to the award of up to $980,000 in a Community Development Block Grant announced by Gov. Dan McKee at the Housing Authority’s Florence Gray Center on Tuesday morning.
The grant will 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.
Sheehan, who is also the resident commissioner on the Housing Authority Board of Directors, was at the lectern with the governor and others who worked on the grant application. That included Housing Authority Executive Director Rhonda Mitchell and her staff.
“If we want to build sustainable, thriving communities of opportunity, we can’t forget about the broadband infrastructure,” Mitchell said. “Unless we have equitable broadband access, our residents would simply be left behind as the labor market and the education systems all adapt to a post-pandemic world where we’ve gone virtual and use tons of technology.”
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CDBG grants are awarded by the state’s Office of Housing and Community Development, which selects recipients based on their proposals.
“Our administration is committed to boosting internet connection throughout the state,” McKee said.
“Expanding broadband access in the North End and the whole city was one of the top responses to our American Rescue Plan questionnaire,” said Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano.
The city sent out a survey asking residents how they would like the city to spend the $7.27 million in federal funding it received from the American Rescue Plan Act, but that funding has not been allocated yet.
“This is a turning point for the North End and residents of the North End,” Napolitano said.
The mayor, McKee and state Rep. Deb Ruggiero all stressed the CDBG funding is the beginning of promised new investment in broadband. Within the $1 trillion infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden is $65 billion for broadband access nationally. Of that, a minimum of $100 million will be provided directly to Rhode Island for broadband, McKee said.
“Today’s award is a good start for the people who have no internet connections, but it’s not where it will take us in the next 20 years,” Ruggiero said.
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The state representative, whose district covers Jamestown and Middletown, has been at the forefront of the effort to provide households and businesses with direct access to glass-fiber broadband cable that will provide high-speed uploading and downloading without the buffering of standard coaxial cable and wireless.
In Rhode Island, 49,573 families, or 12.2% of households, are not connected to the internet and another 34,936 families, or 8.6% of households, only have access via a smartphone or a limited data plan. That means nearly a quarter of Rhode Islanders are under-connected, according to the 2019 US Census’s American Community Survey, McKee said.
“As the COVID crisis laid bare, broadband and high-speed internet are not a luxury but a necessity,” McKee said. “We’ve learned that.”
The CDBG awards for expanded connectivity across the state in 10 communities totaled up to $1.7 million, so Newport received the lion’s share of the funding. Among the other awards was $20,000 for the deployment of a wireless broadband solution throughout the three-floor Forest Farm Assisted Living facility Middletown, supporting access for the 49 residential units in the building. The town of Middletown shared in that award to provide better office access. That was the only other award in Newport County.
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Further investment from the $1.1 billion in funding the state received from the American Rescue Plan will continue to bring back the economy to pre-pandemic levels and beyond, McKee said.
“When we roll in these dollars … we are going to make sure Rhode Island maximizes this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said.
The state is currently second in the nation among all 50 states in terms of economic recovery, McKee said.
“We’ve been in the top tier of states for multiple months for coming out of COVID, but there are still individuals and small businesses that are struggling because there have been disproportionate impacts of this crisis,” said state Secretary of Commerce Stefan Pryor.
The state is making investments “to propel us out of this downturn and into the next decade,” he said. Infrastructure investments like in broadband and wireless access are “key to our continued economic recovery and our long-term economic resurgence.”
“The information economy requires you to be connected via the internet,” Pryor concluded.