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Delaware invests $110M of fed funds in broadband access

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Gov. John Carney unvieled a plan to invest $110 million in expanding broadband access to blackout zones. | PHOTO COURTESY OF THE GOVENOR’S OFFICE

BRIDGEVILLE — With millions in hand from federal funding, Gov. John Carney and Delaware legislators have their eyes set on making Delaware the first state to deliver high-speed internet to every home and business.

“One of the things that we have learned over the last year and a half is that broadband Internet access is important to our families of students and businesses,” Carney said on Thursday afternoon, standing in the Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Company Hall. “I think of my job as governor, there’s nothing more important than making sure we are competitive for those businesses … Broadband is a critical part of that.”

Delaware will be using $110 million of the approximately $1.25 billion of the American Rescue Plan Act funds to expand broadband to 11,600 homes and businesses that still do not have access. This new initiative will target those areas, specifically those in central Delaware and western Sussex County. The Carney administration will unveil a series of grants and programs in October to pay to fill these broadband blackout zones.

Most of those properties that do not have access to high-speed internet are lacking the “last-mile” connection in rural parts of the state, ranging from farms, five houses on a narrow road or a community of 500 people. That last stretch of fiber cable can cost up to $18,000 to $20,000 per mile to run. And in some parts of the state, the remaining distance to current lines can be 5 to 20 miles.

State Sen. Brian Pettyjohn (R-Georgetown/Bridgeville) remembered that his parents, who ran a school bus service in Georgetown, were still using dial-up internet for payroll services in 2009.

“They were about 150 yards away from the last Comcast address and it still cost $50,000 to hook up. It’s economics … In Sussex County, you may get two people every mile,” Pettyjohn said. “What people don’t realize is that it’s not just a matter of running a wire out there … the numbers don’t add up unless it’s getting some help from the government.”

Delaware officials have been working on upgrading the state’s broadband access, tracing back to 2013, when a high-speed broadband line was installed along the 61 miles from Middletown to Georgetown. Two years later, the state awarded a million-dollar grant to Fibertech Networks to expand the network 36 miles from Georgetown, 18 miles west to Seaford and 18 miles east to Lewes.

“Those investments were $30 million in private sector advancement and expansion, adding another 700 miles of fiber blanketing our state that brought broadband closer to home. But it wasn’t enough,” Delaware Chief Information Officer Jason Clarke said. “Our goal being the first state to provide wide services and connections to every Delaware resident and business here.”

In 2017, the state forged on with a fixed wireless network and Delaware later invested another $2 million to erect 15 wireless broadband towers along the U.S. Routes 113 and 13 by the end of 2020. Those towers supported more than 1,500 customers. 

But as the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to work, learn and teach at home, Carney announced he would spend the state’s allocation of the first round of federal stimulus funding to address broadband zones. The $20 million allocated helped 25,700 students and teachers gain internet access. 

But realizing that the measure was a stopgap, Carney and the Delaware Department of Technology and Information asked Delawareans to complete a survey to analyze next steps. That survey provided key data to move forward this year, Clarke said.

The state’s investment in broadband not only represents a window of opportunity, but also equity, noted U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester. Many farms are starting to rely on technology and the internet to operate, and students in Sussex County need to have the same access to tools as those near Wilmington.

“And I know a lot of times we rarely talk about equity, whether it’s perspective of gender or race, but it’s even geography. Kent County, Sussex County, parts of New Castle County deserve to have access to real reliable, affordable broadband. It is a must-have,” Blunt-Rochester said.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, who worked on the ARPA with the Delaware Congressional delegation, said he knew it needed to be flexible enough to speak to each state’s unique needs. Using the $110 million to bridge the digital divide was one of the best examples, and noted this initiative would not be a reality without many in the public and private sector to do it.

“Teamwork makes the dream work, always has, and always will. In this case, it will keep us at No. 1, and get us to No. 1 [in getting people broadband access] with a bullet,” Carper said.

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