Sussex gets better broadband access

SEAFORD — Southern Delaware is well known for its pristine beaches.

It also has unwanted deserts — black holes in the internet world.

The state of Delaware is taking an oasis approach through public/private partnership in providing accessible, affordable high-speed internet to underserved rural areas.

Gov. John Carney on Tuesday announced $1.3 million appropriated by the General Assembly in June and $720,000 from the Broadband Fund will be invested in expanding rural access via wireless technology.

“Today, we are announcing an aspirational goal for us: in the next 24 months every Delaware resident and business will have consistent access to high-speed internet service,” said the governor. “The simple reality is you can’t live a full life, you can’t compete effectively unless you have broadband. We have more job openings than we have people looking for work.

“The problem is there is a disconnect between the jobs being demanded with those openings and the skills people looking for work have. A lot of those revolve around information technology, communication kinds of things we are talking about today.’

“We have to prepare our workforce to be more competitive than others more than any other time in our history,” Gov. Carney added. “Extending broadband service to the broadband deserts here in our state is critically important.”

This announcement at the press conference at the Seaford 911 Center was stop two in Gov. Carney’s three-stop broadband tour.

The first was at Delaware Electric Cooperative. It focused on DEC’s use of the fiber backbone to promote economic development and connect their 26 substations across the state. DEC and Lightower (now Crown Castle) worked closely to design a new network that would be custom built throughout the state of Delaware.

The third stop was a tour of the Willin Farms near Seaford and how access to broadband is essential for the future of Delaware’s agricultural sector.

“You would be surprised how much technology is now leveraged to make our food, to grow our food,” said James Collins, chief information officer for state’s Delaware Department of Technology and Information.

“For over a decade we’ve been working intensively to expand broadband across the state. Many don’t know that Delaware nationally is usually ranked 1, 2 or 3 for broadband speed and access nationally.

“That’s great news. But can you imagine for a moment if you have no access in 2018,” said Mr. Collins. “Imagine living a life where you weren’t connected. In 2018 that is just a tough place to be. So, this effort is about eliminating what the governor called ‘broadband deserts’ across the state. We are laser-focused on eliminating those broadband deserts.”

“Affordable wired broadband is still out of reach for certain rural areas,” said Mr. Collins. “In most cases it’s just a math issue. Companies have to make a profit for their shareholders, for their owners and when they look at rural areas that don’t have dense population there is not a lot of potential subscribers there.

“So, they don’t build out in those areas. Our approach in Delaware is to have public/private partnerships where we use some public funds to remove those barriers for them to deliver services in those areas. We’re going to release this RFP (Request for Proposals) in August and we’re excited about what it is going to produce.”

“Delaware already has some of the fastest internet connections in the country. But if you’re in one of these broadband deserts it doesn’t matter,” said Gov. Carney, adding the plan through the RFP is “to develop partnerships that will improve broadband availability in these broadband deserts in the rural areas of Kent and Sussex county by creating opportunity for the private sector to develop and offer that service.”

“Without the connectivity we are really at a loss to compete,” said State Rep. Danny Short, R-Seaford.

Bloosurf LLC, a local high-speed internet provider, was involved in pilot programs encompassing Seaford and Marydel. Their equipment is on the towering communications tower at the Seaford 911 Center.

“With the Governor’s announcement today, I believe Delaware becomes really one of the first states in the country that has now put together a true statewide plan to cross the digital divide in its rural areas,” said Paul Carliner, president of Bloosurf LLC. “We reach customers as far away as 15 miles and in some cases 20 miles, depending on the elevation of their antenna with speeds that reach the definition of broadband. We think that is an important accomplishment and really validates the state’s approach to bridging the digital divide by focusing on primarily fixed wireless as a key part of the overall solution to deliver accessible and affordable high-speed internet.”

“We’re reaching farms. We’re reaching businesses and homes,” Mr. Carlinger said. “Looking at it a little bit larger, potentially what it means is when you look at so many of the towers in the area that could be covered, you see the depth of coverage that you can get through a wireless program, partnering with fiber providers, partnering with others, and you really begin to address many of the desert areas that the Governor talked about. You really address large segments of the population in these rural areas that for the first time really can have high-speed internet service or an alternative to their current service at a more affordable price and high speeds.”

Since 2015, the Delaware Broadband Fund has invested nearly $1.5 million, with Phase 1 focused on building out the fiber infrastructure. State funding leveraged over $30 million in private investment and 700 miles of fiber.

DTI also has led efforts to upgrade 48 schools to high-speed connections.

In addition, the state’s initiative will:

• prioritize 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;

• make funds available through a rural broadband grant program to reduce barriers to market entry for private sector providers, and to further and incentivize private investment in these areas;

The state initiative mirrors that undertaken by Sussex County.

This past May, the county unveiled a new incentive program developed by county government that enlists several wireless Internet service providers to enter the market in southern Delaware to begin offering high-speed access to customers in traditionally underserved, rural pockets of the county.

Under the county program, providers will supply their own equipment and independently market themselves to customers, while the county will provide space or pay for rental costs for up to two years on a mix of county- and state-owned towers.

In 2017, Sussex County Council set aside in its annual budget $1 million, collected through the county’s share of Delaware’s realty transfer tax, to upgrade wireless communications infrastructure, in part to facilitate the expansion of high-speed Internet access across the county.

“One of the other things we are excited about is the partnership that we have with Sussex County in these efforts,” said Mr. Collins.

Kimberly Hopkins, a college educator, was part of the Seaford pilot. She is now a happy customer, adding she no longer has journey late at night to her mother’s house to grade papers due to lack of internet accessibility.

“It was frustrating for my students, frustrating for me. Now, I can be wherever, and it works. I have three sons. They love electronics,” said Ms. Hopkins. “I am so thankful that I participated in the pilot and I am so grateful that I actually became a customer.”

“To me, in education we are at our best when we provide opportunities for all to do better,” said Seaford School District Superintendent David Parrington. “And this is an example of an opportunity for everyone to do better.”

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