Rural lower Delaware promised high-speed internet by 2020

27 JULY, 2018

The Carney administration is taking a major step forward in a longstanding push to extend high-speed internet access to rural communities in downstate Delaware.

The governor on Tuesday announced he is issuing a call for help from any service provider willing to assist in closing the gap by 2020 — an effort backed by $1.3 million in taxpayer assistance.

“My most important job as governor is to make sure that Delaware has a strong, growing and competitive economy,” Gov. John Carney said. “Working with the private sector over the next two years, we expect to eliminate broadband deserts and ensure that every Delaware citizen and business has access to high-speed broadband service.”

Delaware has consistently been ranked as having some of the fastest internet speeds in the nation so as long as users live in New Castle County or major populations centers in Kent and Sussex.

Rural areas of the state, particularly below the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, have been largely left out of the broadband revolution, due to the high cost of extending fiber optic cable and wireless services to relatively small numbers of customers.

That means residential customers in areas like Greenwood and Dagsboro struggle to binge watch the hottest series on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon.

But it also has serious consequences when it comes to economic development, health care and education.

“It’s hard to imagine any child doing their homework these days without a fast and reliable internet connection,” said James Collins, who runs the state Department of Technology and Information.

One solution to Sussex County’s limited number of family doctors and specialists has been to expand telemedicine, which allows doctors to treat patients remotely through streaming video connections. But the lack of broadband in rural communities means those who could most benefit from telemedicine cannot benefit.

Farmers like R.C. Willin increasingly rely on the internet to guide their tractors, monitor their yield and gauge soil conditions in the field. The 1,400-acre Willin Farms outside Seaford currently uses a Maryland internet provider to upload that data to the cloud and share the information across devices.

“Maryland is way ahead of Delaware,” he said. “It would cost me about $56,000 just to have Comcast bring its internet from my brother’s house down the street to here and then we would be spending $4,000 to $5,000 a month just to get the pipeline we need to use all of our internet-enabled equipment.”

The lack of high-speed connections also is hampering Kent and Sussex counties’ ability to attract new businesses, Collins said.

Carney chose to make his announcement in Seaford, a once thriving town that has struggled to attract major employers since DuPont Co.’s former nylon plant was sold to Invista in 2003. The facility that once provided high-paying jobs to nearly 5,000 workers today employs about 100.

The governor recently signed a bill that many say hampered Seaford’s efforts to attract new companies by limiting the role of organized labor.

But he praised the town’s work with Bloosurf, a Salisbury, Maryland-based company that is providing wireless broadband service to about three dozen customers throughout the town thanks to a state pilot program.

Kim Hopkins, who teaches nursing at Delaware Technical Community College and serves on the Seaford school board, said joining the pilot program made a big difference in her quality of life.

“Before there would be times when I had to grade papers at 2 a.m. and the internet would be so spotty that I would have to go to my mom’s house to finish,” she said. “Now I can grade papers, my one son can watch his Youtube videos, the older boys can play Nintendo while my husband is doing assignments for his school work. It’s a beautiful thing.”

The state is now hoping to use taxpayer dollars as an incentive to encourage other companies to provide similar services.

“The issue is the populations of these rural areas are not dense enough with potential subscribers to offset the capital costs involved for most of these for-profit companies,” Collins said. “Our goal is to provide some financial assistance to make that work more attractive.”

Most of the groundwork has already been accomplished. Under former Gov. Jack Markell, the state provided $1.5 million to a company now called Crown Castle to extend a backbone of fiber optic cable from Wilmington to Georgetown and then from Lewes to Seaford.

That allowed the state to add high-speed internet at 48 public schools and numerous public libraries. The Delaware Electric Cooperative has used that backbone to connect 26 substations across Kent and Sussex.

Now the state is planning to use more than $2 million to subsidize the efforts of private companies to further extend that reach from those lines to neighborhoods, businesses and individual homes.

The rural broadband grant program will rely on about $720,000 in fees previously collected from telecommunication companies and another $1.3 million in taxpayer dollars recently allocated by the General Assembly.

Those funds are in addition to the $1.2 million that Sussex County Council recently earmarked for expanding broadband access, including money to help offset the rental costs on state-owned towers.

“It’s taken a lot of partnerships and collaborations to get us to this point,” Collins said. “And today’s announcement will take us a long way to finally reaching our goal.”

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