The state of Delaware will put $20 million into expanding internet broadband service in Delaware, giving low-income families vouchers for service and creating a pool of cash that established vendors can use to expand into difficult areas.
The state also wants people across Delaware to help them test internet speed, by testing the own service speed of their own computers and cell phones at www.SpeedSurvey.Delaware.gov or by calling 302-739-9701.
The new programs will be paid for with money from the state’s nearly $1 billion share of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
The initiatives are designed partly to help ensure students who must study remotely have the broadband service their laptops and tablets need. Many of them will start school this fall at home because of the virus.
State Rep. Ruth Briggs King (R-Georgetown) was delighted to hear the state announcement Monday. She’s been trying to improve internet access in Sussex County for a decade.
“COVID has thrown this issue to the forefront,” Briggs King said. “I’m sorry it took this to get the attention that should have been there a long time ago, but at least you can say there was one good thing to come out of COVID.”
James Collins, Delaware’s chief information officer with the Delaware Department of Technology and Information, agrees.
“One bright spot in this whole pandemic emergency is that broadband expansion is getting accelerated to help people thrive in a digital world,” Collins said in an interview.
Problems with internet access fall into two categories: access and affordability, he said.
Several areas of the state, mostly in Kent and Sussex counties, are considered broadband deserts. Because there’s fewer people spread over the real estate there, companies don’t think they can make money after the costs of installing service.
The state already had started tackling that with its Rural Wireless Broadband Initiative That program contracted with Bloosurf to attach its equipment to existing towers that had fiber optic service in Kent and Sussex counties. A spot like that can cost $3,600 a month to lease, Sussex County officials have said.
That equipment can broadcast a wireless signal for about 10 miles, Collins said. When a client signs up, a transmitter is installed in or near their home. That transmitter sends a signal into a router in the home, where devices can be connected.
The service expansion process is near its end, with two new towers coming online this week. When the $2 million deal is complete in weeks, the state expects to have helped service emanating from 15 towers. Collins said the state’s investment has resulted in a $30 million private industry investment.
“At this stage in 2020, broadband is essential,” Collins said during the press conference. “It’s as essential as any other public utility like water and electric coming to our home.”
Not only do students need internet access, he said, it’s needed for employees working from home, personal banking, other business needs, government work, telemedicine and even accessing government sites for help, he said.
Soon, he said, Delawareans are going to need faster service, consistently in the range of 100 to 150 megabits per second, which is a measure of how fast information can move. There’s a lot of talk about 5G service, which will be delivered by major cellular companies such as Verizon, he said.
Services like that usually start in high-population metro areas.
“We can’t sit around and wait for it,” he said. “A kid could go from elementary school all the way through high school during that time period.”
The rural program was expected to wind up at the end of 2020, but now will be finished soon, Collins said.
The state Department of Education, too, has been investing in broadband service. While $40 million in CARES bucks came to schools, only $4 million stayed with the DOE. The rest went to individual systems, many of which used part of it to buy devices for students who didn’t have one.
When the lack of internet service began apparent, the Department of Education paid $566,000 to help spread service — $252,000 to speed up the rural expansion with towers and $314,000 to sign up 250 households per month in unserved areas. The department also is spending $934,000 to pay for installation and the first three months of service for 3,500 low-income households with students.
“This is an investment that is going to continue to serve Delawareans long after the pandemic,” said Susan Bunting, secretary of the Delaware Department of Education during the press conference.
Schools had tried to help in the spring help by offering wi-fi in their parking lots or helping with hot spots at home. Those were not sustainable solutions, she said.
In Woodbridge School District, more than 30 percent of families didn’t have internet service in the spring, said Elyse Baerga, supervisor of student services, during the press conference.
Service from the new towers is expected to cost customers $60 to $80 a month, Collins said.
All of the money going to the rural program means that 1,500 families are expected to be served when it’s completed. Last month, Sussex County officials said 200 households there had service from the new system.
The state plans to use the bulk of the new $20 million program — $13.6 million — to buy broadband service in bulk and offer it to low-income families around the state at discounts. That initiative will require working with schools districts and the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services to create the applications. Details will be announced soon, the state said.
The way those vouchers are being worked out is complicated because of how family incomes are derived, a technology and information spokesman said. It’s also complicated because so many services provide internet access — Comcast, Verizon, ATT and others — and the program needs to be designed so each can be included.
The grants are expected to cover 15 months of service because the CARES money is only for things affected by COVID-19, Collins said. The state had to guess how long that impact would last, he said.
The state also make $5.9 million available for companies that want to spread into some areas, but have found it too expensive so far. Collins called those projects “shovel ready expansion.”
Briggs King is happy to see a significant amount of money devoted to the broadband issue.
“We would get a little bit here and a little bit there,” she said. As a new legislator, she tried introducing a bill that would give internet companies a tax break, but the companies said it wouldn’t help.
“I’m delighted to see the focus and the funds be in the same place, but I still have questions about how it’s really going to work,” she said.
She lives just outside Georgetown and didn’t have strong enough internet to attend online sessions of the Legislature through Zoom. She had to go to her office in Georgetown to participate.
Other issues keep popping up, too.
Her own son is one of the people she knows who applied for the new Broadband service and was told they would have to install a 60-foot pole for a transmitter, because trees were blocking the signal. The pole has to be installed by professionals and costs thousands.
Collins, who called the pole a mast, said he hoped the new program will include financial help for people in that situation.
Ultimately, Collins said, the state wants to make sure every part of Delaware has reliable, quick internet service. But before it can do that, it has to have as much specific “granular” information as possible about service now.
Delaware residents can help by dialing into the Speed Survey with both their computers and their cell phones. It’s not necesssary to dial in with a tablet or other device, Collins said, because they work off the same wi-fi that your computer does.
With the information the survey gleans, he said, the state will know better where to invest in all service to make it quicker.
To learn more about Delaware’s broadband efforts, please visit www.broadband.delaware.gov.