Commentary: The time is now for us to invest in rural broadband internet


For race fans, Delaware is known for being home of the “Monster Mile.” Hosting horse races, NASCAR and even the IndyCar at one point, Dover International Speedway has been a fixture in our state since 1969.

By contrast, Delawareans living in rural areas know the state as home of the “last mile.” Slow, unreliable internet is prevalent in Kent and Sussex counties once you leave the more urban settings. In many instances, internet access isn’t even available.

In the telecommunications and internet industry, the last mile is defined as the final stretch of hard-wired infrastructure that provides access to a telecommunications network. This can include cable TV and landline telephones, but it’s now most commonly associated with broadband internet.

My office has received calls and emails from constituents about this issue for years. I currently represent a large swath of rural Sussex County, including Bridgeville, unincorporated Georgetown and a portion of Seaford. Farmers are unable to utilize all the technology now available in agriculture equipment and ordinary citizens can’t get Netflix to buffer. For these constituents to be connected, they’d oftentimes have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to have the proper cable run to their homes or businesses.

Gov. John Carney, former Gov. Jack Markell and the General Assembly have attempted to solve this issue. As recently as 2018, Delaware allocated $2 million to subsidize private companies to install wireless internet infrastructure to help erase broadband deserts. This effort was largely successful, but wireless internet is nowhere near as reliable as hard-wired. Weather, equipment placement and other factors can affect speed and connectivity.

This issue came to a front during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, schools shut down and businesses were ordered to cease in-person operations. Literally overnight, Delawareans found themselves having to participate in school or work remotely from their homes. Shoddy internet connections that were once merely a nuisance now made daily requirements impossible to do, particularly with multiple family members under the same roof stretching each megabit of bandwidth to the limit.

This sudden renewal of demand for hard-wired internet spurred the federal government to invest in the necessary infrastructure.

I was proud to be on hand with other lawmakers at the Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Co. on Sept. 16 for what I believe to be one of the most important announcements in the past 20 years. Gov. Carney, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester and Sen. Tom Carper, both D-Del., announced the allocation of $110 million from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 toward the expansion of hard-wired broadband internet.

The Delaware Department of Technology and Information has estimated that there are 11,600 homes in the state that do not have access to wired internet. The goal of the project noted above is to bring that 11,600 number down to 0. Once the expansion is complete, everyone who wants broadband internet will have the ability to purchase it without having to pay for a provider’s infrastructure installation. Delaware will then be the first state in the U.S. where 100% of homes and businesses have access.

We live in a rapidly changing world. Life as many of us knew growing up is radically different. As utility providers and other industries move away from paper billing and as online banking becomes more prevalent, it will soon be necessary to have internet access. I truly believe the days of going to a brick-and-mortar location to pay a bill will shortly be behind us. The internet is no longer a commodity.

Additionally, our means for acquiring news and entertainment is quickly shifting away from cable television. As inflation causes groceries, gasoline and prices of other life essentials to skyrocket, families are looking to “cut the cord” and move toward internet-based subscription services. Paying for broadband and a combination of Netflix, Hulu and Spotify is often cheaper. Heck, most podcasts are free. (Speaking of groceries, it’s much easier to order them online through your favorite grocery store’s app and pick them up when you want!)

The fact is the internet is here to stay. Businesses, education and places of employment all rely on the World Wide Web, and many are moving exclusively to online models of operation. To move forward and be brought firmly into the 21st century, the $110 million investment in broadband infrastructure is needed and is vitally important to the quality of life here in Delaware.

Not only will we be the first state to have joined the union, but we’ll also be the first state where everyone has the ability to access fast, reliable, hard-wired broadband internet.

Sen. Brian Pettyjohn is a Georgetown Republican.

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