The Last Mile: Can Delaware Deliver?
From: Kathleen Rutherford, Executive Director, A Better Delaware
On Sept. 16, 2021, Delaware lawmakers unveiled a plan to address a much-needed infrastructure improvement project – implementing high-speed broadband across the entire state. This $110 million investment was made possible with funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and if completed will make Delaware the first in the nation to make wired broadband available to every home and business in the state.
The need for statewide high-speed broadband was made glaringly obvious at the onset of the pandemic when many residents were forced to rely on internet service to work, learn, attend doctor’s appointments, worship, and communicate with friends and family.
Delaware is ranked first in the nation for overall internet speed but ranks 24th in rural access. Currently, 11,600 Delaware homes and businesses entirely lack broadband access. Prior to the pandemic, 16 percent of Delaware’s workers relied on internet use daily for teleworking, while after the onset of the pandemic, 45 percent relied on it. “Internet deserts” were quickly revealed, especially across western Sussex County.
Knowledge of these deserts is nothing new though, and is something the state has been working on since 2019 when it entered a $2 million contract with Bloosurf, a Maryland-based internet service provider which is able to serve areas not covered by the area’s leading providers, Comcast and Verizon, or not covered for a reasonable price. The upfront installation fees were paid by the state and contracts were offered for as low as $30 for low-income households with children.
A continuation of this type of assistance happened in October 2020 with the help of the CARES Act which funded Connect Delaware – a $20 million program which allowed Bloosurf, Comcast, and BridgeMAXX to expand service to 517 homes and increase internet speeds for 350 existing users to better serve students.
Connect Delaware also subsidized internet service for low-income students (typically with internet hotspots) who had suddenly come to rely on high-speed internet for their education, and a total of 25,789 were provided through AT&T, Comcast, Medicom, and Verizon. The Department of Technology and Information (DTI) managed the program and provided support throughout.
While the process seems to have run smoothly, it’s possible funds and resources could have been more thoughtfully allocated, but with the time constraints of the CARES Act, all funds had to be used by December 31, 2020.
Currently, the $110 million allocated should cover all expenses with some change to spare – according to a strategic plan developed in late 2020 and issued in May 2021, the project is estimated to cost $75 million. At this time, no official plan has been launched and the DTI website suggests that details regarding the plan will be released sometime in October.
Maryland is already a leader in broadband when it comes to overall connectivity, with service accessible to more than 95 percent of its residents with the goal of reaching 100 by 2026. Their goal is significantly more expensive, with an expected price tag of $300 million. Many other east coast states are similarly positioned with New Hampshire, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginia residing in the top 10 states for connectivity.
One of the main differences between these states and Delaware is that they all have either passed legislation or have legislation pending that addresses broadband issues. It’s important for Delaware to develop one as well to address the project comprehensively with specific goals, procedures, and authorities.
With the proper guidelines in place, getting to 100 percent connectivity is a reasonable goal. The strategic plan estimates that the number of Delawareans without access to high-speed broadband could be brought down by approximately 87 percent if providers were to extend their existing networks just half a mile from their current cutoff points. This approach is called “edge-out.” This approach lends itself to utilizing multiple means of connecting through cable, fiber, fixed wireless, mobile, wireline DSL, and satellite broadband. The plan also suggests using the funding to replace old and failing equipment to ensure that the investment is something that will benefit all Delaware residents for years to come.
The resiliency and success of broadband service and access in in our state depends on the utilization of multiple technologies and a competitive marketplace which will ensure fair pricing and more choices for all Delawareans.