State looking to fill in rural broadband gaps

James Collins (left), Chief information Officer of the Delaware Department of Technology and Information, watches as Vincent Sabathier, founder and CEO of Bloosurf, signs a contract to fill in broadband gaps in rural Kent and Sussex counties over the next two years (Submitted photo/Stephanie Mantegna)

DOVER — Even though Delaware has been consistently recognized for having some of the fastest broadband speeds in the country, even this diminutive state has its share of significant broadband “deserts” in rural areas of Kent and Sussex counties.

James Collins, chief information officer for the Delaware Department of Technology and Information (DTI), said the state is committed to getting rid of those broadband “deserts” by instituting the third phase of its expanding broadband efforts, “Phase Three: Expanding Rural Wireless Broadband.”

Mr. Collins announced on Thursday the state has selected broadband company Bloosurf to design, build, operate and commercialize a wireless network meant to cover the underserved and unserved communities in Kent and Sussex counties over the next two years as part of an ongoing investment in achieving broadband access throughout the state.

He said this phase is focused on public–private partnership opportunities to capitalize on the strengths of both sectors to address gaps in affordable broadband availability throughout Delaware.

“In Delaware, in the rural areas, you hear a lot of people talk about the last mile as it relates to broadband,” Mr. Collins said. “In the rural areas, it’s the last five, 10, 15, 20 miles and fiber can be really expensive to run to a few people, or a house or a farm, that is out away from the general population.

“So, it’s not economically feasible to actually run that fiber to those places, so our strategy was we did a pilot with wireless broadband and said, ‘Hey, can we get to those areas wirelessly a lot less expensively?’”

DTI said it received positive feedback after launching pilot programs in Seaford and Marydel on its wireless strategy for those areas once they installed transmitters on high towers that could reach out for miles and provide a large coverage area.

In July 2018, DTI issued an RFP focused on enabling service to homes and businesses where broadband service is not readily available, particularly in rural Kent and Sussex counties. This partnership also prioritizes low-cost services for lower income families to enable them to take full advantage of the internet, meeting needs that range from applying for jobs to completing homework assignments.

Gov. Carney’s broadband journey

Mr. Collins said this broadband journey all began when John Carney was running for governor.

“The governor (Mr. Carney) started out his campaign with an action plan,” Mr. Collins said. “In his action plan he said that as governor he wanted to eliminate the broadband ‘deserts’ across our state and I couldn’t have been happier when I was reading his action plan. That just put wind in our sails to get this work done.”

On Thursday, DTI announced at its offices at the William Penn Building at 801 Silver Lake Boulevard in Dover it had selected Bloosurf to see that mission through.

“It’s a pleasure and an honor to be here and to be selected by DTI,” said Vincent Sabathier, founder and CEO of Bloosurf. “We started our relationship in 2017 when we were selected for the fiber in Seaford and Marydel and we demonstrated that wireless technology, once you have a good partnership and assets, then you can go into rural areas. We have been doing that in Maryland for four years already and we are very excited to be selected.”

The preliminary design proposed by Bloosurf is broken down in three parts:

• The network core and backbone that integrate the tower sites.

• The tower sites that provide access to the customers. There will be eight primary towers that will be directly connected to the Crown Castle optic fiber network and seven secondary towers connected to the primary towers via a 1Gbps connection to be qualified during this project. Each tower will be equipped with a TD-LTE access technology using either EBS or CBRS spectrum.

•The access equipment at the customer’s premises (CPE) and installation.

Gov. Carney hopes Bloosurf’s strategy can fill in the gaps.

“Applying for a job, or recruiting talented employees for your business,” the governor said. “Taking a college course. Reading a book. Helping your kids with math homework.

“More and more, these are tasks that Delawareans are completing online — to further their education, acquire new skills and compete in an economy that is evolving every day. My most important job as governor is to make sure that Delaware has a strong, growing and competitive economy. That’s why, among other steps we’re taking, it’s so important for us to expand access to high-speed broadband service across our state  —  especially in areas where service is spotty or unavailable today.”

Fast broadband needed in rural areas … now

Michael Scuse, secretary of the Delaware Department of Agriculture, said farmers in those rural areas need the improved technology in order to get the most out of new hi-tech equipment that is available to them. After all, farming is the state’s No. 1 industry.

“The combines today, these machines are a half-million dollars,” Mr. Scuse said. “They’re monitoring the yield as you’re going across the field, they’re monitoring the moisture as you go across the field, they’re actually mapping you yields as they go across the fields.”

That was just the tip of the iceberg, as he added that irrigation systems and poultry houses can now be activated and programmed via a cell phone. Hence, the major need for broadband.

“Unfortunately, our producers cannot take advantage of all the technology they have invested in,” said Mr. Scuse. They don’t have access to high-speed broadband. They’re spending tens of thousands of dollars on each farm and they don’t have the availability to utilize that technology to its fullest extent.

“Between Kent and Sussex counties we have almost 2,000 farms that are desperate for the technology that many of the rest of our citizens have available to them.”

Delaware has been working to expand broadband access across the state for several years. Phase One of its efforts focused on increasing fiber infrastructure throughout the state. The state’s initial financial contribution of about $1.5 million resulted in more than $30 million in private investment and 700 miles of fiber in its plan to install a “fiber backbone.”

Delaware’s broadband “backbone” features high capacity fiber-optic lines that run the length of the state from Wilmington to Georgetown, and from Seaford to Lewes, improving internet reliability for consumers and increasing internet access speeds by as much as 10 times since 2009.

Phase Two of the initiative was the wireless rural broadband pilot, which sought to find wireless solutions that provide a path forward for rural households and businesses in Delaware that don’t have access to high-speed “wired” broadband connections, enabling broadband adoption benefits without unnecessary private and public expenditures.

Now Phase Three is promising to fill in the gaps.

When Sen. Dave Lawson saw the two-year timeline to make the expanded broadband available to rural areas, he was not pleased.

“It’s not fast enough,” he said. “It’s just that simple. Western Kent County is scheduled for August 2021 — that’s not acceptable. The students from the area out there … even the Amish are getting upset because they don’t have internet and I’m not kidding you. This has got to be moving along. This has dragged out way too long.

“While I appreciate what’s going on, how do I go back to 45,000 constituents and give them another piece of false hope? We’ve had a lot of stumbling blocks here. I hate to be the Debbie Downer, but there’s a downside here that needs to be stepped up.”

Mr. Collins replied to Sen. Lawson, “I appreciate your comments Senator and we will move this along as fast as we can and if we see opportunities we may move back and have a chance to move faster.”

Other politicians and county leaders are keeping their fingers crossed.

“Connectivity is the key. Many areas of our county have been under served by the major internet players for many years,” Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, of Georgetown, said. “Bringing broadband access will help families, students, businesses and our agricultural community compete in the modern world.”

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