Governor Carney visits Seaford, looks to eliminate broadband deserts

By Lynn R. Parks

Gov. John Carney was in Seaford last week to announce a state initiative to eliminate "broadband deserts," or areas where high-speed internet is not available. A map of the targeted area includes nearly all of Sussex County, except for the areas around Lewes and Rehoboth.

Carney said that this month the state will formally request companies that are interested in developing partnerships with the state in improving broadband availability in rural areas to submit proposals for doing so. Backing up that request will be $2 million in funding, from which the state will pay grants to private-sector providers.

The grants will "reduce barriers to market entry," Carney said, and "further attract private investment."

Funding for the grant program will come from about $720,000 in fees that have been collected from telecommunication companies and $1.3 million that the General Assembly recently set aside for this purpose.

Carney told people gathered at the Seaford Police Station that he hopes that within two years, Delaware's broadband deserts are eliminated. Broadband, through which households and business tap into a wireless signal, is cheaper and easier to install than fiber optic lines.

The broadband initiative is one effort that his administration is making to boost the economic picture in the First State, Carney said.

"My most important job as governor is to make sure that Delaware has a strong, growing and competitive economy," Carney said. "That's why, among other steps we're taking, it's so important for us to expand access to high-speed internet service across our state, especially in areas where service is spotty or unavailable today."

High-speed internet service is also important for households, Seaford resident Kimberly Hopkins told the governor. Hers was one of 30 homes that were part of a recent pilot program conducted by the city of Seaford, paid for by the state, to test how reliable broadband service would be, and whether it is what residents want.

Hopkins is an instructor at Delaware Technical and Community College and Wilmington University, as well as a member of the Seaford School Board. "When it comes to the internet, it's a serious deal in our household," she said. "I grade papers online, but that only works if the internet is working." Before the pilot program, "many times, everything would freeze up and I would have to go to my mother's house, which had high-speed internet. I don't have to do that anymore."

In addition, "I have three boys, and they love electronics," Hopkins said. One son, who is autistic, has a Talker, an electronic device that helps him learn language. "Now, guess what," Hopkins said. "It's not buffering. He's watching his YouTube videos and he's learning 1,2,3 and A,B,C. While I'm grading papers. While our other sons are on their Switch, playing Fortnite. While my husband is doing assignments for his school. It works, and it's a beautiful thing."

Before coming to Seaford, Carney visited the Delaware Electric Cooperative in Greenwood, where workers told him how important high-speed internet is when it comes to providing electrical power across Kent and Sussex counties. Operations supervisor Josh Wharton told Carney that at 11 p.m recently, he received notice that another power company had a fire on one of its lines. The company asked if Wharton could redirect power to 5,000 customers.

Wharton was home, he told the governor. But he was able to accomplish what the company asked using his i-Pad, because his home, which is in Gumboro, has high-speed internet.

Carney also visited Willin Farms, west of Seaford. Owners R.C. Willin and Brent Willin told him that farmers can use the power of the internet to adjust plantings and to monitor equipment and irrigation, as well as to manage business operations.

"We want all of Delaware's farms to have access to this type of technology," Carney said. "Expanding access to high-speed broadband is essential for Delaware agriculture sector to remain competitive."

Carney said that state initiatives have already meant $30 million in private investment to install 700 miles of high-capacity fiber optic lines, forming a broadband "backbone." "Thanks to these efforts, Delaware consistently ranks at, or near, the top of broadband speed rankings across the nation," he said. "Yet we still face the challenges of many other states, when it comes to access and affordability, especially in our rural areas."

Recently, the Sussex County Council voted to include $1.2 million in its 2019 budget, to install equipment to assist in communication among county facilities. While the equipment will be geared toward helping county employees, it could also mean increased broadband access for people and businesses in the county.

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