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Sussex County uses existing towers, poles to help spread wireless internet service

As of July 2020, more than 200 residents and businesses have begun using two new Sussex County providers for internet service.

Allowing internet service providers to hook equipment directly to existing towers and poles is helping Sussex County move its Broadband Initiative forward.

“What COVID did was show how important it is to be connected,” said Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson. “We are no different than any other community in that respect.

“With schools continuing to do remote learning and people continuing to work from home, it has become clear that internet is critical. It has become a utility, just like water, electric and sewer. Anything we can do at the county level to get that internet to customers, we are trying to do.”

The Sussex initiative is designed to bring service to areas of the county that either have no service, or whose service is too slow or too expensive.

A new state technology move may help.

Secretary of Education Susan Bunting said Tuesday during Gov. John Carney’s weekly COVID-19 briefing that the state and the Department of Education have spent some federal COVID-19 money to building towers in western parts of the state. One was in Kent County and one was in Sussex.

The expansion of service is important because the state has recommended the schools start with a mix of in-person classes for younger students and remote classes for older ones. But some districts, such as Red Clay Consolidated in New Castle County, and Milford in Sussex County, have decided to open with all remote classes, meaning more students will need internet access.

Lawson said that the state is doing exactly what Sussex County did.

“They are utilizing existing towers managed by Delaware Division of Communications and some commercial vertical assets,” he said.

“This supplements the county’s efforts (or we are supplementing their efforts),” Lawson said. “Point is, both efforts are helping to extend broadband to rural areas of the state.”

The Delaware Department of Technology and Information and the Division of Communications are working to let wireless internet provider Bloosurf — which is also working with Sussex County — attach to “vertical real estate,” which is existing towers and poles, without the cost of having to install them, Lawson said.

Lawson said the county has awarded several wireless internet service providers access to use vertical assets at no cost, for a defined period of time.

“This helps the WISP establish a presence in Sussex County with less overhead, as the cost to rent space on vertical assets could be up to $3,600/monthly,” he said.

While four wireless providers have been approved to do business in Sussex County, only two seem to be actively pursuing clients: Bloosurf and BroadMaxx.

As of July 2020, more than 200 residents and businesses have begun using the two services for internet, Sussex County said.

The other approved companies are Nuvisions/Broad Valley and Delmarva VolP/Conxx.

“The solicitation of WISPs is always a work in progress and they don’t all jump on the bandwagon at the same time,” Lawson said. “Many have to perform region studies, frequency interference studies, interests in the areas and always ROI (return on investment).

“I can’t ultimately speak for the other WISPs, but I do know that they are working on their delivery plans and strategies,” Lawson said. “There are many guidelines that they need to follow before erecting equipment.”

Some internet service providers have refused to come into Sussex County because there are not enough people in an area for them to install the vertical assets they need plus their equipment, said Dwayne Kilgo, Sussex County’s information technology director.

The U.S. Census Bureau said the county’s population was 234,225 in July 2019. Much of that is huddled around the beaches to the east of the county.

Sussex County is putting the finishing touches on an agreement with Delaware Electric Cooperative to help internet providers get going in more rural areas.

“Every Coop substation has fiber,” Lawson said. “What we have asked is whether we could put a pole at the substation, tap into their fiber and attach it to a large wireless internet transmitter. Once those are installed, ISPs can add their equipment and offer the service to people in the area with very little outlay of cost.

“In most cases, Coop substations are located in rural areas, which means this will provide internet options for those who may have had little or no internet in the past.”

Any company adding equipment to the towers must meet FCC regulations based on federal law, he said.

“The size and rural nature of Sussex County require that we use multiple methods to get internet to all residents,” Lawson said. “There are some options we reviewed, like installing fiber throughout the county that would have cost taxpayers hundreds of millions without any promise of a return on that investment.

“Not everyone in the county is interested in broadband nor can everyone afford it, so as stewards of taxpayer money, we have to keep our costs as low as possible.”

Using Kilgo’s expertise has allowed the county to come up with a variety of solutions to address the problems, Lawson said.

“We are not even close to finished and we know this will be an ongoing project,” Lawson said, “but we feel we have made great strides in adding internet connectivity throughout the county.”

Want to know more? Go to the Sussex County Broadband Initiative page.

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