Taking broadband to Delaware's ‘last mile’

State could be first to have universal connections

By Glenn Rolfe
Posted 5/1/22

Though geographically small, Delaware is aiming big with its mission to be the first state with universal broadband accessibility.

Boosted by $110 million of American Rescue Plan Act funding and …

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Taking broadband to Delaware's ‘last mile’

State could be first to have universal connections

Posted

Though geographically small, Delaware is aiming big with its mission to be the first state with universal broadband accessibility.

Boosted by $110 million of American Rescue Plan Act funding and Gov. John Carney’s commitment to closing the digital divide, the state is aggressively expanding hard-wired broadband internet access to “the last mile,” including more than 11,600 homes and businesses that have been identified as underserved.

“We’re looking to expand broadband here in Delaware. This is a priority. It has not only been a priority of mine, but it has been a priority of the last two administrations,” said Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, who hosted an April 12 webinar on the subject.

“Luckily, with the funding that we were able to get from the federal government, we’re looking to be the first state that has pretty much universal connectivity for every business, every home, every address within our state. So there is an advantage of being a small state.”

Jason Clarke, chief information officer of Delaware’s Department of Technology and Information, agreed.

“There is an advantage to … being a small state. There is an advantage that we have been at this and had support such as (Sen. Pettyjohn’s) and others’ for quite some time,” he said. “We’ve tried a number of technologies and solutions. Not all of them have scaled the way we need them to. So we’re at a unique point in time where we have all the ingredients to being the first state to close this gap. We don’t have mountains to cross. We don’t have rocky soil to go trudge through.”

On March 17, Gov. Carney and Mr. Clarke announced $56 million in broadband infrastructure grants to begin making high-speed, wired broadband connections available to every Delaware home. To connect, federal guidelines require wireline equipment, with service supporting 100 megabits per second or more.

Fiber will be brought by Comcast, Verizon and Mediacom, three licensed service providers that responded to the grant application process in October 2021. All have franchise agreements with the Public Service Commission, Mr. Clarke said.

Comcast received the most grant funding, with $33.1 million to expand its service to underserved areas. Verizon’s award was $11.8 million, and Mediacom $11.1 million.

Most of the underserved broadband areas — also known as deserts — are in western and central Sussex County and southwestern Kent County. There also is a desert along the Del. 9 corridor, leading from Kent into New Castle.

“We’re going to run down roads. The intent is to be able to service all homes on that road,” said Mr. Clarke. “There are some connections that are within range, where the service runs down the road. Those can happen somewhat sooner, a little bit easier to perform than, say, a scenario where boring under a roadway has to occur.”

Thanks to the grants, cost for running fiber is not an issue, whether it be a simple connection to an estimate of $100,000 for running service to a residence down a remote street, Mr. Clarke said.

“We are removing that conversation from the table and addressing those costs with the vendors, so that, whether (or not) you live in a community with 600 homes and you pick up the phone, you call for service, and you get it within two weeks, we want that same experience for the families that have homes … where there might be two locations on a mile-long stretch of road,” he said. “We still want that same service capability to be presented to you.”

Mr. Clarke continued, “This is about addressing that last mile, about addressing the fact that putting fiber in the ground to these homes that are in these pockets have not been justifiable investments for the companies themselves. They have service around all the pockets, but they were unable or chose not to provide service in those spaces because of the cost to run fiber. So we are removing that part of the discussion and saying, ‘We’re going to cover the costs and give these homeowners and businesses an opportunity to connect to your service at the rate that everyone else gets.’”

A website developed by the state — broadband.delaware.gov — offers several features, including the GIS Hub for users to determine if a home or business has internet service or if they are on the list for upcoming connection.

This week, DTI will begin to reveal which vendor will service which area. “It is our goal, as we go through that, to be able to provide continuous updates,” said Mr. Clarke.

Besides the $56 million, the $110 million ARPA investment unveiled last year will support the Connect Delaware program for students for at least two more years.

“During the pandemic, we had a real situation in ensuring that our students had the ability to connect when they were forced to school from home,” said Mr. Clarke. “One of our exercises to achieve that was to look at services for those individuals that could qualify. At this point, we have 25,700-plus students … utilizing a MiFi device, a fixed wireless service, or, in some cases where there was a wired connection, and it was an issue of affordability, the state has stepped up to cover that particular initiative, as well.”

He said those vital connections will remain.

“We are going to continue that program because the deployment of all these services will take about 36 months to complete. So we need to bridge that gap. And this is one way to do that, specifically for the students,” Mr. Clarke said. “Each of the vendors had to commit that they would be able to complete this in the timeline allotted. That’s also when we have access to the money. We would like to finish sooner.”

Though Gov. Carney announced the ARPA investment in broadband last fall, previous CARES Act relief funding also brought broadband to several hundred homes, “as well as us striving towards putting together a strategic plan” for service across Delaware, Mr. Clarke said.

That plan involved many stakeholders, some with rural roots. The list included residents of Sussex, Kent and New Castle counties, as well as representatives of the legislature, higher education, public and charter schools, Delmarva Power and others, “to really get a feel for what we needed to do to close the gap and move forward,” Mr. Clarke said.

Incoming funding will also be used to serve addresses that were not part of that plan but are being reported through the GIS Hub, said Christina M. Dirksen, DTI’s strategic communications manager.

For now, connections have begun, and crews are laying fiber.

“Access to reliable, hard-wired, high-speed internet is vital in today’s always connected world,” Sen. Pettyjohn said. “From education and business operations to general family entertainment, broadband internet plays an important, necessary role in our lives.”

He offered a reminder that this initiative is not for customers who are unhappy with their internet service and are simply looking to switch providers.

“That’s not what this is for,” he said. “Specifically, this is to get service to people who don’t have wired service. That’s actually part of the federal grant. And it’s a wired service. Wired is the way to go. Wired is that future. It can be built out in the future.

“As someone who has worked in the information technology field for much of my professional career, I am excited that every Delawarean who wants broadband internet will soon be able to access it.”

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