High-speed internet changed the world, allowing millions of people to fritter away their time on social media every single day. (Oh, and some other benefits, like online shopping, streaming music and video, working from home, and connecting businesses with customers.)
It was all great, unless you were Blockbuster or a print newspaper company, or unless everyone else had high speed service and you couldn’t get it. Residents of rural southern Delaware know that feeling well: In the past decade, broadband networks have gone pretty much everywhere in the state, but you'd better pray for good cell service if you live on a sparsely populated back road. And forget Netflix.
State leaders met recently in Bridgeville to celebrate a new effort to solve the problem for good: A $100 million investment of federal American Rescue Plan money to connect every home and business in Delaware to broadband internet.
The state already ranks very highly for broadband connectivity compared to other states, according to Jason Clarke, the chief information officer for the Department of Technology and Information. (It depends who’s ranking — some put Delaware in the top 10; U.S. News and World Report recently gave the state a blah 33rd ranking.)
Clarke linked high rankings to a lot of Delaware’s residents being concentrated in the northern part of the state, where internet is better. That still leaves what he called broadband deserts in Kent and Sussex.
The state estimates there are 11,600 homes and businesses without broadband access, scattered in pockets of poor service. If you look at a map of those pockets, western Sussex and southern Kent County stand out. About 63 percent of the unserved sites are in Sussex County alone.
That’s perhaps why last week’s announcement featured an increasingly unusual scene in modern politics: Republicans and Democrats celebrating together. Leaders from Gov. Carney to Sen. Tom Carper and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, all Democrats, to state Rep. Jesse Vanderwende and state Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, both Republicans, gathered in the Bridgeville firehouse and touted the benefits of the new effort, which aims to make Delaware the first state to get broadband to everyone.
Pettyjohn said later that he created a list for people who need broadband to sign up with their contact information, and he had already gotten almost 700 signups in a few days, just from sharing it via his social media and newsletter.
He also heard from some who wondered if the money might be better spent on projects like roads (this federal money would not be available for that). He called the $110 million an investment in a 21st century utility, comparing it to the government helping expand telephone and electricity to rural areas in the past.
Blunt Rochester offered a similar sentiment at the press conference. “This is not just a nice thing to do, this is a must have, and if we didn’t know it before, the pandemic showed us that we must be connected.”
Broadband has been a long time coming to rural Delaware.
“We’ve been working on this expansion for well over a decade,” Clarke said.
Pettyjohn shared a story about his parents, who ran a school bus business but were stuck with dialup internet more than a decade ago. They were a classic illustration of the broadband divide, 150 yards away from Comcast access. They eventually paid $15,000 to get the connection, he said.
Now that the project is underway, though, it should move relatively quickly in infrastructure terms. Clarke said he anticipates the work being completed in two to three years in all three counties. The money being available up front helps a lot, as they can start several projects at once.
They’ll put the various projects out for contractors to apply for. He said the state has a good working relationship with internet service vendors and they have “a high degree of confidence” of being able to get all the work done via this kind of partnership.
Why it's taken so long
A big reason it’s federal money pushing this project to completion is the math involved in rural areas.
It’s never been economical for companies to spend $20,000 to $30,000 putting in the cable and hookups, Clarke said, in exchange for a few customers paying $150 a month.
“Here in Sussex County, a mile, you might get two people," Pettyjohn said. "And the numbers just don’t balance out a lot of times without help from the government."
The state has targeted rural areas in the past, partnering with Bloosurf to set up wireless towers. This project is different: Clarke said every home will now have the option of connecting to wired broadband.
Of course, having broadband available and being able to pay for it are two different things. Most of the $110 million will go toward installation of equipment, but some will be used to continue a program to help students in need access the internet for school. That program was set to expire at the end of the year, but this money will serve to extend it, according to Christina Dirksen, a spokesperson for the Department of Technology and Information. The state will look at other ways to help people connect, too.
What it means for the area
As you might imagine, broadband is top of mind for local businesses.
It’s always a topic at economic luncheons, said Terry Carson, executive director of the Western Sussex Chamber of Commerce. “It comes up every time.”
She’s hoping better internet will be a draw for new business, in addition to helping the ones already here.
That’s on the governor’s mind, as well.
For elected officials, he said, “there’s nothing more important than making sure we are competitive for those business locational decisions and to enable our businesses here in our state to be successful.”
With fast internet, “whatever products or services that somebody wants to offer, they’re going to be able to expand that reach to the global marketplace now,” Pettyjohn said. He cited as an example the Red Barn Country Store on Route 404 west of Georgetown. It’s along a major road, but doesn’t have broadband access, which is crucial for all facets of business now.
“It allows for the expansion of opportunity … bringing broadband into different areas makes it more attractive for people to come and for businesses to locate. It’s really a win win for everybody,” he said.
Business gets tangled up in everyday family life and education, too. Broadband will improve education for kids, but also help parents, Carson said.
“A lot of parents have had to do all kinds of stuff to get their kids to the ability to have the proper internet for them to continue on with their education through this COVID time,” she said. “And it’s crippling our businesses, because a parent has to take care of their child first … I know parents who’ve had to go to like, restaurant parking lots (for internet access).”
There’s also farming, which is big business downstate.
“As a business person on the agriculture side of things, I can pull out my cellphone, and I can check on my poultry houses,” Rep. Vanderwende said. “I can monitor where the harvesters are in the field as we speak, and I can also look at irrigation systems.”
“I think this is definitely a wise investment.”