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Pandemic reinforces need for downstate broadband

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Delaware is looking to accelerate plans to expand high-speed internet to rural parts of the state, including leveraging $566,000 from the CARES Act to reach homes that have gone without it.

With coronavirus bringing the “day of reckoning” for teleworking, Delaware Department of Technology and Information CIO James Collins said it’s also seeking innovative ways to use funding sources. His office and the Delaware Department of Education plans to use a portion of Delaware’s estimated $44 million CARES Act aid to continue to bring wireless broadband to rural neighborhoods.

About $252,000 will be spent to speed up infrastructure improvements and another $314,000 will be used to bring 250 homes in southern Delaware per month online. Additional funding will be made available to support students in low-income households.

The unexpected move to “social-distance learning really highlighted the gaps so we’re partnering up to accelerate the broadband expansion and create a low-income plan,” Collins said. “Leveraging those funds will take our program a long way. We live in an information age now, from the way kids learn, the way we work and how business transacts.”

Last year, Gov. John Carney announced the state would use $2 million to subsidize efforts of private companies to expand wireless broadband to southern Delaware by 2020. So far, about $1.4 million has been used on equipment mounted on seven towers along Route 113 and 13. Eight towers are still left to go in the initiative.

Delaware is ranked as having one of the fastest internet speeds in the nation, but areas south of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal have been slow to catch up. The cost of laying fiber is between $15,000 to $20,000 per mile, so it’s cost-prohibitive for internet service providers to do it for a small customer base.

Since Delaware is not rural enough to qualify for many federal grant programs, local officials have tried to come up with other solutions. For example, Sussex County officials partnered with Broad Valley Micro Fiber Networks to bring fiber to the heart of Georgetown.

The lack of high-speed internet, especially in an age where streaming video is needed for business meetings, also makes it hard for Kent and Sussex County to attract new businesses. But with thousands of Delawareans working from home, the strength of the internet connection is more important than ever.

“This has been a huge wake-up call. There’s challenges with children being at home while you’re working but when you layer not being able to afford access or not being served by something reliable, it stresses the issue,” said Troy Mix, policy scientist at the University of Delaware ‘s Institute for Public Administration.

“This isn’t a fix it and forget it problem,” he added. “To continue to innovate we need public and private partners to make a commitment to make sure we have the infrastructure in place for this.”

Bob Perkins, executive director of the Delaware Business Roundtable, said southern Delaware’s internet issues have been magnified by the coronavirus. He called for more federal and state investment as more businesses are forced to pivot teleworking.

“Now the second issue is how many have access to a stable employment base when we’re told to work from home,” Perkins said. “In a world where we’re ‘teleworking on steroids,’ this is disenfranchising a good number of people from working.”

Delaware State Chamber of Commerce President Michael Quaranta said he’s been on many video conferences calls where downstate colleagues lag because of the internet service. It’s a game-changer for industries across the board, in terms of efficiency or even how people work, even as the state eases on restrictions.

“Technology disruptions are happening more and more frequently because of these global events, and It ushers in change,” Quaranta said. “There is flexibility and opportunity here, but we have to think about the right device needed for the connectivity. You can’t have one without the other.”

One area that hasn’t been hurt by lack of broadband during the pandemic is telemedicine. With the CARES Act also providing $200 million to expand telemedicine, Delaware Healthcare Association President & CEO Wayne A. Smith said that even without access to video, many patients are using it for extreme symptoms not related to COVID-19.

“One boon here is that the simplest technology still allows audio, and with the financial support from Medicare and Medicaid, we’ve been able to expand into it,” he said.


-Katie Tabeling

[email protected]

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