Protecting taxpayers as Delaware delivers universal broadband

July 19, 2022

As supply chain crunches and an embargo on Russian oil drive inflation, families across Delaware are anxiously watching their pocketbooks and stretching every dollar. They deserve to know their elected leaders in Dover are exercising the same care.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill Congress passed late last year offers our state a golden opportunity to bring high-speed internet to every doorstep. But delivering on this promise requires setting clear priorities and spending each dollar wisely. We cannot afford to repeat the same mistakes that plagued the last major federal rural broadband effort a decade ago, when agencies in D.C. squandered funds building duplicative infrastructure in communities that already had fast networks. 

This time, Delaware officials – not Beltway bureaucrats – are in charge of deciding where and how to invest these digital infrastructure dollars. And with the chance for a rare do-over, we have to keep the faith this time with taxpayers – and just as critically, with unconnected Delawareans still stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide.

A total of 98% of Delaware is already wired with fast and modern internet infrastructure, but at least 11,600 homes and businesses throughout the state are still unserved. The $56 million in broadband grants state officials recently announced are laser-targeted to wire these digital deserts. 

Instead of gambling tax dollars on government-owned networks, which have a habit of failing and leaving taxpayers high and dry, Delaware is prudently partnering with proven, capable network builders to speed digital buildouts in the communities where they’re urgently needed.   

These smart investments are a necessary first step. But we won’t fully vanquish Delaware’s digital divide merely by making more money available for network builds. While only around 2% of households in our state lack access to broadband infrastructure, a much larger 24% aren’t connecting to the networks at their doorsteps.  

That’s why focusing on sign-ups – not building duplicative infrastructure – will stretch our public dollars even further. To realize the full return on taxpayers’ broadband investments, we'll need to empower more of our neighbors to connect.

Affordability should no longer be an impediment to getting online, thanks to private and public initiatives that now make home internet service essentially free for families in need. Broadband providers serving our area, including Comcast and Verizon, have publicly committed to offering high-speed plans at no out-of-pocket cost to families eligible for the FCC’s new Affordable Connectivity Program.

However, we need to do more to raise public awareness of this game-changing opportunity; the Wall Street Journal recently documented the struggles officials face across the country getting the word out and getting people signed up. Public service announcements and social media outreach from state agencies can help, but neighbor-to-neighbor evangelization will be even more effective at increasing enrollment in these low- and no-cost broadband options.

Then there’s the issue of having the skills and confidence to use a computer to get online. Delaware must leverage the infrastructure bill’s digital inclusion funding to provide our citizens with the foundational digital skills and support to overcome skepticism, mistrust and apathy. Our K-12 schools, libraries, community colleges, civic groups and churches, among others, can all become hubs for skills training and technical assistance, helping the unconnected get signed up.

Here too, we need transparency and accountability for all groups receiving public funds for training and outreach. We can track outcomes, measure results and double down on the programs that move the needle most effectively. 

This one-two punch – targeted, well-managed infrastructure buildouts, and effective investments in digital skills training and outreach – will give Delaware taxpayers the best bang for our buck and lay the foundations for decades of economic growth and opportunity. The First State can become the first state in the country to achieve universal broadband availability, giving us a leg up as we compete to lure businesses, grow our economy and create good-paying jobs.

We have a long way to go to declare victory in the race for universal broadband. But by learning from past mistakes and protecting taxpayers every step of the way, we can advance growth and opportunity for all families across our state.

Kevin S. Hensley, R-Townsend, represents District 9 in the Delaware House of Representatives.
  • Cape Gazette commentaries are written by readers whose occupations, education, community positions or demonstrated focus in particular areas offer an opportunity to expand our readership's understanding or awareness of issues of interest.

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