Almost overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic shifted much of our lives online — from education and work to healthcare and retail shopping. And, remarkably, our broadband infrastructure performed superbly, helping families across Delaware adapt to these seismic changes.
But many Delawareans are stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide — lacking a home broadband connection for different and sometimes complicated reasons. It’s a problem that needed to be fixed even before the pandemic, and one that has more urgency now.
Although 98 percent of Delaware’s communities are wired for broadband and we have the fastest average internet speeds of any state, only 76 percent of Delaware residents actually subscribe to broadband at home.
Many factors contribute to this broadband “adoption gap.” When unconnected Delaware households are asked why they don’t subscribe, more than 60 percent say they just don’t see the need for, or have any interest in, high-speed internet. Sometimes non-adopters may prefer their mobile service. And one quarter of Delawareans don’t have a computer at home.
To help address this challenge, most major broadband providers have established programs to offer low-cost broadband ($10 to $15 per month) to low-income customers, together with crucial digital literacy training and discounted computers to help spark interest.
These programs have helped millions of low-income Americans get online over the past decade, including many right here in Delaware. And since the start of the pandemic, many providers have gone further — opening up Wi-Fi hotspots to the public and even offering free home service for the most vulnerable customers.
Still, we need to better understand why broadband has failed to capture the imagination and interest of so many across our state, despite the widespread availability of subsidized discount programs. This is a critical sociological issue we need to solve.
In addition, in some of our state’s rural, downstate communities, the problem is less about broadband adoption rates than with broadband availability. Longer distances and fewer customers-per-mile make broadband infrastructure cost-prohibitive without public investments.
Here in Delaware, Gov. John Carney’s effort to bring wireless broadband to over 127,000 homes and businesses in Sussex and Kent counties was an important step forward. More recently, Delaware’s Department of Technology & Information (DTI) and Department of Education have committed over $20 million of CARES Act funding to help fast-track broadband infrastructure and adoption programs in rural downstate communities.
But like rural electrification a century ago, this rural deployment challenge is national in scope, and requires a national response. This isn’t a problem Delaware should be left to solve on its own; the federal government also needs to step up more.
Congress spent tens of billions of dollars over the past decade trying to connect rural America but has made little progress — over 20 percent of rural Americans still have no access to wired broadband.
The last rural deployment effort, launched by the 2009 stimulus bill, was half-baked in conception and poorly executed, with billions of taxpayer dollars diverted to build duplicative networks in communities that already had high-speed service, instead of being prioritized for unserved areas.
The federal government’s internal watchdog office criticized the ham-handed effort: “We are left with a program that spent $3 billion, and we don’t really know what became of it,” Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigator Mark Goldstein said at the time.
This fall, the Federal Communications Commission will try again with a new $20 billion effort to deploy broadband in rural communities.
This time, we need to be smarter. Congress needs to focus federal funds where the problem is greatest: areas that currently have no fixed broadband service, including some in Sussex and Kent counties.
To further build out rural broadband, we also need to reform the eligibility rules to encourage more competition among broadband builders vying for federal construction contracts. The current, outdated rules, written almost 25 years ago, allow some state and local regulators to steer funds toward their favored providers, instead of those best equipped to get the job done right.
Finally, we need accountability: the feds should tell us how communities will get needed broadband and in what year — and then set up a system to ensure the goals are met. Too often, pie-in-the-sky rhetoric has been followed by an empty bag of results.
We need to get universal broadband in each and every Delaware community, and get every home to actually sign up. It’s critical for us to compete globally, to grow our local economy, and to address longstanding social and economic inequities.
We can’t afford to wait any longer.