Delaware Converting Broadband Deserts
Friday, April 7, 2023
Delaware Converting Broadband Deserts
You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.
Round-Up for the Week of April 3-7, 2023
"The pandemic highlighted that broadband deserts without internet in our state still exist and just how important access to broadband is to our families, students and businesses."—Gov. John Carney (D-DE)
The groundwork for a well-connected Delaware dates back to 1997 with a pioneering collaboration between the state's departments of technology & information, transportation, and education. The Delaware Department of Transportation constructed extensive fiber for transportation purposes, quickly placing Delaware at the cutting edge of intelligent state transportation systems. This initial public investment in fiber infrastructure also supported a broad array of public institutions. Excess fiber capacity was made available to the Department of Technology & Information to support education initiatives and other state agency communications needs. By 2020, the state's fiber backbone extends approximately 700 miles. The state benefits both from a robust state network and a culture of inter-agency collaboration.
Building off of that groundwork, Delaware now strives to be the first state with wireline broadband access at every home and business.
“Before COVID-19 we made a commitment to strengthening our broadband infrastructure that directly contributed to Delaware ranking number one among states for internet speed and consistently placing in the top three for access. The pandemic highlighted that broadband deserts without internet in our state still exist and just how important access to broadband is to our families, students and businesses," said Governor John Carney (D-DE).
Delaware's Digital Divide
Across Delaware, 98.5 percent of homes already have broadband access. But 24 percent of Delaware residents still aren’t online.
Although areas around Delaware's capitol are generally served, rural parts of the southwestern part of the state have 11,600 homes and businesses without access to wired internet at speeds of 25 Mbps download and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps. Sussex has 7,350 unserved locations, Kent County 3,800, and New Castle County 450. In broadband “deserts” like western Sussex County, students who were forced to study remotely during the COVID-19 school shutdowns struggled to connect to their online classes.
Even in areas where most are served, CTC Technology & Energy found small clusters of unserved addresses where incumbent broadband providers have not extended their infrastructure—primarily because they are not required to do so by franchise requirements, and the potential return on investment is not high enough to merit the cost to pick up those customers.
CTC’s engineers estimated that approximately 9,600 unserved homes (87 percent of the unserved homes in the state) could be served if the existing telecommunications providers would expand their network footprints by half a mile into unserved areas. It would cost approximately $39.8 million for incumbent providers to construct the roughly 883 miles of needed fiber and/or coaxial cable.
CTC estimated it would cost approximately $75 million to extend fiber-to-the-premises to 60 percent of unserved locations (approximately $5,550/location).
In 2021, one in four households in Delaware felt that the market currently provides high-speed internet at a price their household can afford. Discounted internet services and subsidy programs are available but appear to be significantly underused, with many low-income respondents reporting they were unaware of programs such as Comcast’s $10-per-month Internet Essentials service.
Delawareans face broadband skills gaps—but they are also looking for help. In 2021, almost half expressed a desire to become more confident in using computers, smartphones, and the internet.
Delaware Broadband Strategy
In its 2021 Broadband Strategic Plan, Delaware adopted a number of recommendations for meeting its broadband goals. The plan was developed by a diverse group of stakeholders with representation from the public and private sector across the state. Recommendations include:
- Support residents and broadband providers to maximize federal broadband benefit subsidies and minimize the burdens of participation;
- Partner with broadband providers to promote low-cost internet programs to eligible residents;
- Provide technical assistance to position Delaware competitively for federal funding, including from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA);
- Maximize the benefits of NTIA and ReConnect funding opportunities;
- Adopt symmetrical 100 Mbps speeds as a minimum broadband target for the next five years;
- Invest in last-mile infrastructure; and
- Expand partnerships with broadband providers to maximize Rural Digital Opportunity Fund-funded buildout—and protect against the possibility that RDOF obligations may not be met.
Delaware Broadband Programs
The Delaware General Assembly created the Delaware Broadband Fund in 2013 to support and enhance broadband services in the state’s public schools and public libraries and for rural broadband initiatives in unserved areas of the state.
Rural Wireless Broadband Initiative
In July 2018, the Delaware Department of Technology & Information (DTI) issued a request for proposals (RFP) focused on enabling service to homes and businesses where broadband service was not readily available, particularly in rural Kent and Sussex Counties. The initiative also prioritized low-cost services for lower-income families to enable them to take full advantage of the internet, meeting needs that range from applying for jobs to completing homework assignments.
DTI selected Bloosurf—an operator of wireless and fiber networks headquartered in Salisbury, Maryland—to design, build, operate, and commercialize a wireless network meant to cover the underserved and unserved communities in Kent and Sussex Counties. The design proposed can be broken down into three parts:
- Network core and backbone that integrates tower sites;
- Tower sites that provide access to customers. There are 8 primary towers directly connected to the existing optic fiber network, and 7 secondary towers connected to the primary towers via a 1Gbps connection to be qualified during this project. Each tower is equipped with a TD-LTE access technology using either EBS or CBRS spectrum;
- Access equipment at the customer's premises (CPE) and installation.
DTI provided Bloosurf with approximately $2 million for the work and the company deployed its network throughout parts of rural Delaware, providing households with a broadband connection where wired service is unattainable due to cost or geography. The Delaware Department of Education has also developed a partnership with Bloosurf to connect low-income students to affordable internet options. Eligible families engage with the program through their school, and receive free installation and three months of free internet service from Bloosurf. After the three-month period, service is $30 per month.
The initiative was first scheduled for completion by the end of 2020. But in August of that year, the project received a boost of $566,000 through the Delaware Department of Education’s CARES Act funds to fast-track reaching more students in unserved and under-served areas in need of high-speed broadband for remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Combined with the initial $2 million investment in state funding, the Rural Wireless Broadband Initiative will serve more than 1,500 customers in rural areas and has capacity to expand.
In 2020, Gov. Carney announced that $20 million in CARES Act funding would be used to build out additional broadband infrastructure across Delaware, gather strategic data through a statewide speed survey, and acquire equipment and services for families in financial need. CARES Act funds were also used to cover equipment installation and broadband service for students from low-income households across the state for remote or hybrid learning purposes.
Connect Delaware is comprised of two discreet subprograms. Its infrastructure program supports the buildout of new broadband infrastructure by the private sector in Delaware. Its subsidy program provides fixed and hotspot broadband connections to qualifying low-income students in the state. For both programs, all funds were required to be spent, and all services required to be completed, by December 30, 2020 due to the federal requirements of the CARES Act.
The state is also using $110 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to ensure all homes and businesses in the state have a hardwired connection to broadband internet.
For the infrastructure program, participating providers were required to meet the following minimum technical performance requirements for the networks that would be provided using program funds:
- For a wireline service, at least 50 Mbps download throughput and >3 Mbps upload throughput
- For a wireless service, at least 25 Mbps download throughput and >3 Mbps upload throughput
- Latency <50 ms for both wireline and wireless service
- For a wireless service, backhaul capacity per base station of at least 1 Gbps
"Stable, high-speed internet connection is important for all Delaware families, students, and businesses. Now, with the availability of federal funds, we are on our way to giving Delawareans across the state access to connect to school, work, health care, and more."—Governor Carney
In March 2022, Delaware made $56 million in grants to Comcast ($33.1 million), Verizon ($11.8 million), and Mediacom ($11.1 million). The three companies will extend their existing coverage areas to serve more than 11,600 Delaware homes and businesses which do not have access to high-speed, wired broadband service. The companies will build and extend current infrastructure to deliver fixed wireline internet access with transmission speeds that, at a minimum, provide 100 megabits per second (100 Mbps) download and 20 megabits per second (20 Mbps) upload.
State grants funded up to 75 percent of the construction costs, with the companies kicking in the remaining 25 percent match funding.
The subsidy program provided broadband services free of charge to low-income students through the 2021 calendar year. Eligible broadband services met the following technical requirements:
- Provide 25/3 Mbps capacity, or a connection capable of operating at least two simultaneous Zoom or Google Classroom sessions
- Provide latency <150 ms
- No data restrictions based on the time of day; unlimited data with at least 25 GB per month at full speed
- Provide a Wi-Fi connection capable of supporting at least five simultaneously connected devices
- Include necessary equipment to enable service, including Wi-Fi distribution throughout the home
- Include all necessary installation at the home, or capability to work out-of-the box with written instructions
- Availability of customer service from 8am to 5pm, seven days a week
AT&T, Comcast, Mediacom, and Verizon participated in the program. AT&T and Verizon offered hotspots, and Comcast and Mediacom offered fixed home connections. Households with more than one eligible student were able to receive services for each student.
All of the state’s 19 school districts and 23 charter schools requested a total of 25,789 products through the program. Enrollment burdens for participating families were minimized by DOE, DTI, schools, and the broadband providers ultimately resulting in high participation and a significant amount of connections for students.
Federal Broadband Funds
In addition to the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan Act funding mentioned above, Delaware has been tapping into additional resources from the federal government.
"These investments from the President’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the American Rescue Plan Act will build on our efforts to make high-speed internet available to—and affordable for—every home and business, positioning Delaware to be the first state in the country with universal access to broadband," said Gov. Carney.
Capital Projects Fund
Delaware is the only state so far to not employ Capital Projects Fund support for broadband. Instead, the state is using $40.3 million (36 percent of its total CPF allocation) for the Delaware Libraries program. The support will be used to construct new or expand existing libraries in Delaware to meet the needs of identified communities. Public libraries funded through this program will provide increased access to resources and programming for community members including students, job-seekers, children, and parents, among others. The competitive grant program will provide funding for nine eligible library projects across the state. Each of the library projects will provide access to high-speed internet.
Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act
In November 2021, NTIA awarded Delaware over $5.5 million in funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to plan for the deployment and adoption of affordable, equitable, and reliable high-speed internet throughout the state. From the Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, Delaware received $4,995,113 for
- Identification of unserved and underserved locations;
- Planning and capacity building for Delaware's Department of Technology & Information for broadband deployment;
- Development of a workforce strategy with key partners to recruit and train residents for employment in infrastructure projects;
- Surveys of unserved, underserved, and underrepresented communities to better understand barriers to high-speed internet adoption
By mid-August 2023, Delaware will develop a Five-Year Action Plan that establishes its broadband goals and priorities and serves as a comprehensive needs assessment.
And from the Digital Equity Act's State Digital Equity Planning Grant program, Delaware received $516,096 for:
- Creation of a Delaware Digital Equity plan;
- Engagement with stakeholder communities;
- Subawards to support stakeholder capacity development in three counties.
By November 2023, Delaware will deliver the state's Digital Equity plan to NTIA.
Affordable Connectivity Program
In March 2023, Delaware launched a statewide initiative to increase awareness of the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). EducationSuperHighway will support statewide awareness efforts by training community leaders and partner organizations and providing outreach materials and tools to help households enroll. The non-profit recently launched GetACP.org, a virtual mobile assistant that simplifies the ACP enrollment process by providing real-time support to help eligible households determine the easiest way to qualify. The mobile website is available in four languages and helps applicants overcome critical barriers in the enrollment process by helping them identify the documents needed when applying and find “free with ACP” broadband plans available at their address.
- 17 Million Households Enroll in Affordable Connectivity Program
- FCC Announces Final List of Entities Selected for Affordable Connectivity Pilot Programs
- Biden-Harris Administration Invests $40 Million to Bring High-Speed Internet to People in Rural New Mexico
- FCC Releases Tutorials on Responding to Mobile Wireless Challenges
- Biden-Harris Administration To Give $80 Million in Funding for Pathways To Good Infrastructure Jobs
Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)
- Broadband Challenges and Opportunities in Affordable Rental Housing
- Achieving Universal Broadband in California
- A First Look at the Evolving National Broadband Map
- Congressional Action Needed to Boost Efforts to Expand Broadband Access
- Treasury Proposes Important New Guidance for SLFRF/CPF Broadband Projects
ICYMI from Benton
- FCC Takes Next Steps Towards Just and Reasonable Communications
- New York is Working to ConnectALL
- FCC Plans Additional ACP Awareness Grants
- Half of ACP-Eligible Households Still Unaware of the Program
Apr 11—National Spectrum Strategy Listening Session (NTIA)
Apr 19—2023 BEAD Success Summit (Telecommunications Industry Association)
Apr 19—Colorado Broadband Summit (Colorado Broadband Office)
Apr 20—Open Federal Communications Commission Meeting
May 22—Indigenous Connectivity Summit 2023 (Connect Humanity)
June 5—RightsCon Costa Rica (AccessNow)
July 12—State Digital Equity Plans (NTIA)
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.
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