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With New RFP, Delaware Aims to Eradicate Broadband 'Deserts'

Officials hope to leverage existing fiber infrastructure and a successful wireless broadband pilot to connect rural areas through public-private partnerships over the next two years.

Delaware will build on its existing fiber network and a successful wireless broadband pilot with an RFP aimed at eliminating so-called “broadband deserts” over the next 24 months, officials said during an announcement Tuesday.

The event was part of a three-stop tour July 24 highlighting what Delaware does well in providing its residents online access and how it will improve. The day began with a visit to the Delaware Electric Cooperative, which has used the state’s fiber backbone to link 26 substations and connect employees remotely and concluded at Willin Farms, which consistently uses Internet access to analyze agricultural data.

During his remarks outside the Seaford police station, Gov. John Carney announced that the state will release an RFP in August seeking private-sector partners to expand wireless broadband in rural Kent and Sussex counties, and in “desert” areas. Delaware hopes to enhance economic development and improve educational opportunities — and in the latter case, eliminate a disconnect between retiring workers and unskilled labor that results in jobs going unfilled.

“The reality then is, that we have to prepare our workforce to be more competitive than others, than any other time in our history. And extending broadband service to the broadband deserts here in our state is critically important. So today, we’re announcing that an aspirational goal for us, that in the next 24 months, every Delaware resident and business will have consistent access to high-speed Internet service,” Carney said.

In an interview, state CIO James Collins said Delaware consistently has some of the fastest Internet connections in the nation and has been able to leverage the Delaware Broadband Fund, monetized through legislative negotiations during telecommunications deregulation, to fund a two-phase broadband pilot. In the first phase, the state used the fund to “incentivize providers” to serve rural areas, investing $1.5 million since 2015. Companies including Crown Castle have installed around 700 miles of fiber across the state.

The pilot’s second phase earlier this year saw Maryland company Bloosurf deliver the Internet to residents in Seaford, Sussex County and unincorporated Marydel in Kent County, connecting around 50 subscribers via wireless broadband for the first time. The two counties are home to around 400,000 residents — nearly half the state’s population.

The state will monetize the effort it’s initiating with the RFP with around $720,000 from the fund, as well as with local monies and around $1.3 million approved by the state Legislature, Collins said, describing it as a “perfect storm” of favorable timing and conditions. Low-cost broadband for low-income families will be prioritized, the state said.

In June, Sussex County officials committed to doing their part, earmarking $1.2 million of their proposed $177 million budget to add new broadband towers in rural areas.

“I think most states are having challenges in rural areas. The market drives access in the heavily populated areas. But when you get to the less-populated areas, there are challenges because the market is not driving there, and unless you do something to incentivize growth in those areas, they struggle,” Collins said.

The state will “try to light up 90 percent of Sussex County” and areas in east and west Kent County, Collins added. Two area residents who attended the Seaford Tower event said joining the pilot’s second phase and getting wireless broadband had changed their lives.

Seaford School District board member Kimberly Hopkins, a teacher, said she’d had to grade papers online at her mother’s house before getting her own wireless connection.

“It just works. It’s a beautiful thing. I didn’t realize I lived in a desert until today. I lived in a desert and now I’ve been freed,” Hopkins said.

Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.