If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that high speed internet access in the United States is essential, but inadequate in its current state.
When the whole country was suddenly forced to do most everyday tasks digitally, including attending school and going to doctor’s appointments, the cracks were exposed.
In Delaware, more than 97% of residents have access to a wired broadband connection providing speeds of 25 Mbps or faster, according to BroadbandNow — a significant number that still leaves approximately 26,000 residents without a high-speed wired connection, and another 11,000 residents with no access to a wired connection at all.
Last week, the State of Delaware took a major step in closing that gap by announcing $56 million in Broadband Infrastructure Grants to Comcast, Verizon and Mediacom, which will extend their existing coverage areas to include an additional 11,600 Delaware homes and businesses, shrinking the digital access divide and making everything from streaming Netflix movies to remote work available to every resident within the next three years.
The goal of universal broadband in Delaware is not a new one, despite the gaps that the pandemic highlighted. Indeed, Delaware has been working toward that goal over the last decade.
If the current broadband infrastructure project completes as scheduled, Delaware may become the first state in the US to have wired broadband access to all households, though Maryland and Virginia also have universal broadband goals set for 2025.
Here’s a brief rundown of Delaware’s broadband expansion efforts over the past 10 years:
In 2012, Verizon invested more than $69 million in its Delaware wireline networks and information technology infrastructure, a move aimed more at business and economic development than providing access to all households.
“Our infrastructure investment breaks down traditional technological boundaries, empowering people and businesses in Delaware to connect however, whenever and wherever they want,” said Tim Smith, Verizon region president of consumer and mass business for Pennsylvania and Delaware at the time. “This creates opportunities that are borderless and that bring great benefits to our customers, employees, suppliers and communities.”
Gov. Jack Markell celebrated the completion of a fiber line running from Middletown to Georgetown by announcing a new grant to expand high-speed internet access in underserved communities in Sussex County.
“Part of the reason we aren’t quite at the top of the rankings is we face a challenge that is seen across the nation — improving access in our rural areas,” said Markell at the time. “So we made rural expansion of high-speed broadband a priority in the new Delaware Broadband Fund, and now we will begin to realize the benefits throughout this region, from schools and libraries, to health care facilities and places that provide government services. And the additional benefits will be far-reaching, starting with the jobs created through the construction phase, and continuing with better access for businesses, farms, and homes.”
In 2015, businesses and schools near the Delaware-Maryland border got a major bump in their internet speeds when Dallas-based internet service provider PEG Bandwidth announced its acquisition of Newark-based network W.L. Gore & Associates.
W.L. Gore’s network became capable of providing internet speeds of up to 100 gigabits per second, about 10,000 times faster than Delaware’s average statewide peak connectivity speed at the time. The company then allowed businesses and schools along the Delaware-Maryland border to buy into the network in an effort to stimulate the local economy.
In 2018, the Delaware Department of Technology and Information (DDTI) launched a request for proposal for expanding broadband in rural parts of the state. The Rural Broadband Pilot focused on enabling wireless service to homes and businesses where broadband service is not readily available, particularly in rural Kent and Sussex counties, as well as prioritizing low-cost services for lower income families. The pilot, designed and operated by the Maryland-based high-speed internet company Bloosurf, was considered a success.
After the success of the Rural Broadband Pilot, Bloosurf was called on again to help provide high speed wireless access to what James Collins, then-CIO of DDTI, called “the last mile.”
In the spring of 2019, DDTI signed a public-private partnership with Bloosurf to ensure that Kent and Sussex counties will be “broadband deserts” no more, with a plan to install wireless broadband throughout the area.
“We’re talking about $2 million, which is offsetting their capital costs to deploy wireless broadband into less populated rural areas,” Collins said. “The state will essentially own the equipment that gets mounted on the towers. They’re using power infrastructure that’s already in the state, so that is going to expedite the deployment for a period of seven years, at which time, as long as Bloosurf offers their services in the underserved areas and offers low income plans, the equipment will become theirs.”
With the pandemic shining a light on broadband gaps across the state, the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) added $20 million to Delaware’s broadband infrastructure
The funding was designated for expanding high speed internet access, acquiring equipment and services for families in financial need, and gathering strategic data through a statewide speed survey.
“We know that access to high-speed broadband is as essential as any public utility, and the COVID-19 pandemic made that need even more evident — the day of reckoning for broadband is here,” Collins said at the time. “We are very much encouraged by the significant progress that has been made but we have more to do. We will continue to pursue any and all avenues available to us to ensure digital equity across our entire state.”
In the meantime, as schools were still in online mode, Delaware-based wifi company WhyFly partnered with the City of Wilmington to provide free hotspots for students and families in the city, at spots including the Chase Field House, Kingswood Community Center and Teen Warehouse.
In September 2021, Gov. John Carney and Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall Long announced a $110 million investment in universal broadband in the state, including a major infrastructure overhaul, especially in Kent and Sussex County. This investment, funded by the American Rescue Plan Act, put Delaware on track to being the first state in the US with broadband access to every home and business.
“Access to broadband is infrastructure. Just like when our roads, bridges, and railways are broken we fix them, and we need to do the same for our access to broadband and close these gaps,” said Hall-Long. “This critical investment from our federal government is a once in a generation opportunity for us to make a real difference and deliver meaningful investments. I’m excited about the opportunity to really put our state in a position of strength to meet the challenges of tomorrow.”
Comcast, Verizon and Mediacom got $56 million in Broadband Infrastructure Grants, targeting those last 11,600 Delaware homes and businesses that remain unconnected.
Universal broadband in Delaware achieved?-30-