Expanding wireless broadband to rural areas critical

With no current internet service at his home in Seaford, George Trammell frequently visits the Bridgeville Public Library, among the libraries in Delaware that provide free wifi to the public, including the parking lot. Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe

DOWNSTATE — The mission, while challenging but not impossible, is to convert broadband-less deserts into internet oases.

Through various initiatives, the state is investing millions to bring wireless broadband to unserved and underserved rural areas of Sussex and Kent counties — a need magnified by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The problem now, because of COVID, people realize they cannot live without decent internet,” said Vincent Sabathier, founder and CEO of Bloosurf LLC, one of the prime players in efforts to bring more affordable/accessible internet to Delawareans.

In spring 2019 a partnership announced with Bloosurf LLC, Delaware Department of Technology and Information provided funding for startup costs of approximately $2 million to design, build, operate and commercialize a wireless network.

In announcing the Bloosurf partnership, Gov. John Carney said the “initiative will connect Delawareans in rural areas that have long been underserved by high-speed internet service — or not served at all.”

DTI estimated the target areas encompass approximately 127,700 homes and businesses in rural Sussex and Kent. Prioritization focused on low-cost services for low-income families.

Sussex County, through initiatives of its own, is also on board.

“Sussex County’s broadband initiative is a multi-faceted, years-long project to expand high-speed internet throughout the county,” said Sussex County finance director Gina Jennings.

Sussex County has $750,000 in its 2021 fiscal year budget for additional vertical assets that would give providers options to expand their service, particularly in places where Delaware Electric Cooperative already has fiber at their substations. There are currently two locations being tested.

CARES Act impact

In August, Gov. Carney announced that $20 million in CARES Act funding would be used to support building out additional infrastructure, acquiring equipment and services for families in financial need, and gathering strategic data through a statewide speed test.

“Each of the 15 towers currently has the ability to reach 100 customers (1,500 customers total) but can be scaled up to serve additional customers if there is further demand,” said Christina Dirksen, DTI strategic communications manager.

CARES Act funding for broadband is designed to support student success by providing broadband services for an estimated 26,000 low-income students in the K12 system. This program will cover the cost of equipment, any necessary installation, and monthly service charges through Dec. 31, 2021.

CARES Act funding is required to be expended by the end of this year.

DTI is working with the Delaware Department of Education to identify student needs. Funding will be allocated by the end of this year to pay for services and equipment through 2021, Ms. Dirksen said.

“We are also providing up to $5 million in funding to internet service providers and companies that commit to building out broadband infrastructure,” said Ms. Dirksen. “For example, an upgrade to mobile networks (i.e., from 2G to 4G capabilities statewide) is likely — but the bid process would allow companies to use any technology as long as they demonstrate their ability to deploy quickly. Accordingly, shovel-ready projects will be given priority.”

Broadband.com

Nationwide, Delaware ranks 14th in broadband access, according to Broadband.com, which since 1999 has been managing wholesale partnerships with top business-class internet service providers (ISPs), including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and others.

According to Broadband.com’s Sept. 1, 2020 update:

• more than 97 percent of Delawareans have access to a wired broadband connection providing speeds of 25 Mbps or faster;

• By county, more urban New Castle leads with 98.3 percent broadband coverage. Kent is next at 96.2 followed by Sussex at 94.9;

• affordability data shows that 57.1 percent of Delaware’s population has access to a low-priced ($60/month or less) wired
internet plan. This ranks well above the national average of 51.5 percent with access to the same plans.

Having found the internet hot spot, a Sussex Central High School student does school work remotely near his residence in rural Harbeson. Submitted photo

Yet approximately 26,000 people in Delaware have no wired connection capable of the same speeds. Additionally, another 11,000 residents do not have access to a wired connection at all.

And while 52 internet providers offer services in Delaware, 43,000 people only have one provider operating at their place of residence, making it impossible to switch should the need arise, according to Broadband.com’s update.

The initial goal was to eliminate broadband deserts in those regions within 24 months.

As part of the CARES Act announcement, 15 towers in the current phase of the Rural Wireless Broadband Initiative in Kent and Sussex counties were to be completed about four months ahead of schedule.

Originally slated to be completed by the end of 2020, the project received a boost of $566,000 through the Delaware Department of Education’s CARES Act funds to fast-track reaching more students in under-served areas in need of high-speed broadband for remote learning during the pandemic.

“The contract allowed us to build wireless sites on existing commercial towers all on existing state towers. We built 15 sites — eight in Kent and seven in Sussex,” said Mr. Sabathier. “Then COVID created another problem. Everybody all of a sudden realized they need broadband, to work from home or study from home. And nobody was ready. The urgency became much more obvious than it was in the past. Before it was a remote problem. Now it became a political, social problem. And at the same time, it’s not only connectivity, it is the affordability. Some people cannot afford it.

“We accelerated first to be done at the end of 2020. In May they asked us to accelerate it. It was supposed to be done initially in two years, in June 2021. We completed by August. We are loading customers as fast as we can. We have a team of five installers, and they are working nonstop including weekends to try to connect as many people as fast as possible.

“When we started this program in Delaware it was to provide coverage in those deserts, some coverage,” said Mr. Sabathier. “We cannot cover everyone because we cannot defy the laws of physics, but our solution is to provide very fast speed to a good portion of the population.”

Combined with the initial $2 million investment in state funding, the Rural Wireless Broadband Initiative is expected to serve more than 1,500 customers in rural areas and has capacity to expand.

Bloosurf’s tower projects included Bridgeville, Laurel and Seaford.

“That was really a desert, around Bridgeville,” said Mr. Sabathier. “Bridgeville is already saturated. So we are trying to find a way to get it more capability. Seaford and Laurel are growing too. We will reach a saturation at some point. We have three sites on the east side, in Milton, Dagsboro and Bethany. Most sites can cover easily 10 miles. In the center of the state where you have woods is where it is most difficult.”

Bloosurf has offered a potential solution — tower-like masts that can capture the wi-fi signal even when surrounded by trees. Masts would be an access point for exclusive use only for that area and could not be used to provide any other service, Mr. Sabathier said.

Remote education link

“Internet access is certainly a challenge in many spots in Sussex County, and we have taken multiple steps to assist our families and get their students online for our modified remote learning plan during this first marking period,” said Sussex Technical School District spokesman Dan Shortridge. “We have students in all areas of Sussex County. There are a variety of solutions depending on individual circumstances, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer.”

About two percent of Sussex Tech’s student body has requested help with Internet connectivity.

Expanded broadband service in Western Sussex County through Bloosurf LLC includes technology on existing towers, such as this one at the City of Seaford Police Department. Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe

“We are supplying them with portable Internet hotspots through a state contract. Other students are using public access spots in the community, and some students are here on campus working from our computer labs while properly socially distanced,” said Mr. Shortridge. “We are also hopeful that Delaware’s broadband access initiative will help more Sussex County families go online and reduce this barrier to learning.

“For students who have Internet access at home but require devices to access our online learning platform, we have provided laptops on an as-needed basis.”

Woodbridge, a rural district, found through a survey in March that upward of 3 in 10 families had no internet.

“It might be connectivity, but it also may be affordability. It’s one or the other,” said Woodbridge Superintendent Heath Chasanov. “When we did a survey back in March when we first went remote to finish out the year, we had a pretty good return rate — probably 60 to 70 percent. Of that, 30 percent of our population didn’t have reliable internet.”

Bloosurf is addressing the need through a portion of the state’s $20 million CARES Act federal funding.

“We got probably $200,000 of that. The big part of that was for affordability. We are going to support the low-income families,” said Mr. Sabathier. “That will help tens of thousands of families to be connected.”

Spine of the internet

The state’s initial financial contribution of about $1.5 million resulted in over $30 million in private investment, and 700 miles of high-capacity fiber-optic broadband “backbone” running from Wilmington to Georgetown and from Seaford to Lewes, improving internet reliability for consumers and increasing access speeds by as much as 10 times since 2009.

The next phase focused on public–private partnership opportunities to address gaps in broadband availability. Gov. Carney launched the Rural Wireless Broadband Initiative to expand access to high-speed broadband in under-served areas.

An additional $2 million was invested to further these efforts. Equipment installation on 15 towers was completed several months ahead of schedule this year.

Mr. Sabathier says Delaware did it the right way.

“What they did first … they started investing into fiber network, an optic fiber backbone that goes through the state and connects to like schools, power plants, critical infrastructure,” said Mr. Sabathier. “The state recognizes the problem and realized they’ve got to do something about it. They put money on the table to find a solution.”

Down in Sussex County

Sussex County’s ongoing effort took root in 2015 when the county selected Broad Valley Micro Fiber to construct a fiber ring in Georgetown to connect county facilities, while offering a potential high-speed solution to businesses and homes along the ring’s route in the Georgetown area.

“Since that time, the county has taken over ownership of the fiber ring and will be looking to partners in the private sector to market the product and attract new customers in need of high-speed service,” said Ms. Jennings. “But the effort has not been limited to the center of the county; there are numerous ‘broadband deserts’ scattered throughout Sussex, and we, along with the state, private Internet service providers, and even the Delaware Electric Cooperative, have all been working on our own projects and collectively to try to come up with solutions that provide Sussex Countians an oasis of connectivity.”

Sussex County has taken other steps, including piloting a partnership with wireless ISPs such as BridgeMaxx and Bloosurf in 2018 to co-locate their equipment on county towers for free in order to do business here and reach rural residences in our community, said Ms. Jennings.