Delaware broadband chief: 100/100 speeds are enough ‘for now’

Delaware has been vocal about its universal broadband efforts, as it hopes to become the first state to connect every resident and business with high-speed internet. But there is still work to be done before and after universal coverage happens.

Roddy Flynn, executive director of the Delaware Broadband Office, is only in his fourth week on the job, but he’s all too familiar with the broadband landscape, given he was formerly the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's (NTIA) deputy director of congressional affairs.

“I worked in Congress back when we passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and I got to work on kind of drafting the language for this program,” Flynn told Fierce in an interview. From there, the White House appointed him to NTIA to look at how to nationally implement its Internet for All campaign. Now, he’s returned to his home state to focus on achieving universal broadband coverage in Delaware.

“Here in Delaware, we’re kind of advancing the ball a bit and we’re striving for 100/100 Mbps service,” he said. “Which will be enough – for now – to have multiple people on devices and have a whole household that’s able to utilize the internet.”

But that speed threshold may not suffice in the long-term, Flynn noted, due to increasing demands put on internet infrastructure. Hence why Delaware is leaning into the NTIA’s preference for fiber builds, as fiber “is really the best technology right now for scaling up in the future” to faster speeds.

“Right now, 100 parallel is what I think is needed. Five years from now, we might need 200 parallel,” he said. “So we need to be ready to adjust to those possibilities.”

One of the things Flynn had to do at NTIA was really immerse himself in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO), a very technical document that “isn’t exactly a beach read.”

“I got to learn just how detail-focused you need to be to make these programs successful,” he said. “It’s easy to say we want Internet for All, but when it comes to technologies we’re going to use, geographical concerns, what workforce do we have available, affordability, that’s really detailed work that’s going to be vital to actually having this program be a success.”

States are undertaking this planning process as well for the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. Flynn noted his conversations with state legislators are a bit more hands-on than the outreach he did at the NTIA “because we’re talking to folks that have immediate constituent needs.”

“We need community input, we need to know what the needs are,” he said. “Our state legislature has been really helpful with that and I’m sure we’ll continue to be great partners.”

Digital equity

The state's digital equity plan goes hand-in-hand with its network construction efforts, and for good reason, Flynn said.

“We could have the best, most advanced fiber technology in the world, but if folks can’t afford it, they don’t know how to access it, they can’t surf the net safely, then it really isn’t worth anything,” he explained.

Part of advancing digital equity is ensuring people have enough devices – something Delaware “has done a great job already.” At the onset of the pandemic, Delaware’s Department of Technology and Information distributed MiFi hotspots to schools so that students could affordably access the internet at home.

The broadband office also partners with other public entities, such as libraries and hospitals, to enhance broadband access. Flynn noted many of his office’s in-person sessions have taken place at libraries.

“They’re really a place for people who are marginalized or at need where they know they can get, if not services, then at least information,” he said. “Libraries also strive to have digital navigators available for people, who could maybe sit with someone and say, ‘here’s how to go about [getting internet in your home].’”

Flynn added the Delaware office is also working on enhancing hospital systems so they can provide more information on broadband.

“[Hospitals] also have a vested interest because they want to engage in telehealth, which became increasingly important during the pandemic,” he said.

Having these public spaces to boost digital equity will be key even after universal broadband coverage is supposedly achieved.

“It’s going to be hard to ever [say], ‘this is our victory day, everyone has coverage.’ Because even when every household we know of has coverage, I don’t want to give up,” said Flynn. “Because there are going to be households we don’t know about.”

But Delaware is striving to close the gap. Thus far, Flynn noted Delaware submitted around 9,000 location fabric challenges to the FCC’s broadband map, and the state’s broadband office has identified more than 12,000 addresses without internet access.

Once the state receives its Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) funding - an estimated $100-$115 million - Flynn thinks “folks are going to be working really hard in order to get internet to everyone as quickly as possible,” potentially beating the program’s five-year implementation period.

“We’re still figuring out what the top priorities are, because we won’t be able to fund everything,” he said. Aside from device access, there are also things like cybersecurity and workforce development.

“There’s going to be a big strain on the national workforce, because every state is going to get their BEAD money at the same time,” added Flynn. For Delaware’s part, it’s trying to make sure workers in the broadband industry obtain the skills they need for network maintenance and home installations.

Advantages and advice

Understandably, working in a small state like Delaware has its benefits, with Flynn noting it “can be really responsive as things change” during deployments.

“We can be a little nimble – as we find new households, we can adjust,” he said. “Also, we have a really good terrain, really conducive to laying fiber or aerial deployment.”

Delaware also “got out of the gate early” with a strong middle-mile network that runs through the length of the state. Deploying that network didn’t cost as much as it would for a state with a larger land mass.

Furthermore, Flynn touted the importance of having a competitive ecosystem of ISPs, because “BEAD’s not going to work if it rests on the success of one particular provider.”

“It’s great when the competition is between multiple great providers and I think that’s what we have in most parts of the state right now,” he said, adding Delaware has a healthy mix of fiber providers as well as cable, wireless and satellite-based companies.

If there’s anything the federal government should take note of when looking at Delaware’s model, it’s that Delaware is a state “that can respond to changes really well.” But not every deployment is going to be the same.

“I think what NTIA already recognizes – and should keep recognizing – is that there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for deploying internet across the country, that we need to be responsive to the situation on the ground,” Flynn concluded. “That’s something Delaware does in a lot of different facets of life, particularly in broadband deployment, but I hope it does serve as a model for the rest of the country.”