How Much Will It Cost to Connect?

Jeff Lee, LitteT Broadband

I recently saw a Rant&Rave in the Franklin Press talking about the cost of broadband connection fees.
"It is good broadband is getting extended to under-served areas of the county, but the connection fee of $1,500 is a barrier for most households.

Seeing this prompted me to write this article in hopes of clarifying a few facts about the broadband expansion projects under way in our county. The real answer to the question in the title is "It Depends".

There are two types of broadband expansion projects: projects privately funded by individual providers and projects funded by state grants and federal subsidies.

Privately Funded Projects

The South Macon and Nantahala broadband expansion projects are examples of projects kicked off through some action and by Macon County, but must ultimately be financed through private funding. 

In the case of South Macon, the County provided a grant (back when it was still legal for counties to do so) to help kickstart the construction of a fiber backbone into the South Macon area. Without the existence of that backbone, no expansion was even possible. Ultimately however, the financial burden to connect homes and businesses to this backbone fall on BalsamWest. BalsamWest is actively working with communities, businesses, and individual residents to get connected. Unfortunately the cost to reach many of these communities from the backbone is high, and these communities and residents are being asked to defray some of the investment cost through a connection fee. The actual connection fee charged typically depends on how many homes/businesses are being connected within a given area.

The Nantahala expansion project is just getting underway. As counties in NC are no longer legally allowed to offer grants to encourage broadband construction, the County contracted BalsamWest to build fiber and connect 5 County anchor institution facilities. These facilities vitally need the connectivity for public safety, and once the fiber is complete will offer public wifi to help provide some community connectivity. To expand into the community beyond these specific 5 connections requires private funding from BalsamWest. After completion of the project initiated by the County, BalsamWest will begin to work with surrounding communities to provide fiber service. Some of these communities and individual residents will likely be asked to pay a connection fee to defray additional construction costs.

There are other expansion projects within Macon that were not initiated by the County but by individual providers. Projects developed by individual providers on their own are typically chosen and designed to meet some basic business return on investment criteria. Internet service providers are businesses that must generate a profit to remain in business. The connection fee amounts charged in projects such as these will depend on the provider, how they have chosen to fund the project, and how they intend to make a return on this ivestment.

Grant and Subsidy Funded Projects

There are currently 3 grant and subsidy funded broadband projects that will be impacting Macon County. With several additional grant programs kicking off, we hope to add more projects like these in Macon.

  • GREAT Frontier Award - Frontier is finishing up their design work and plans to begin construction in the next month or so. This project will connect 2700 homes and businesses by Q2 2025.
  • GREAT BalsamWest Award - BalsamWest is working on planning and design and intends to begin construction by the end of the summer. This build will serve 263 residences in the South Macon area by Q3 2025. Macon County was pleased to see this grant awarded as it leverages earlier investment in the South Macon project.
  • RDOF Charter Award - Charter Communications received subsidy awards nation-wide as part of this program. They are busy building in Haywood and Jackson counties and have indicated they plan to reach and begin construction in Macon County later this year. The Charter RDOF project is intended to provide service to over 8000 homes and businesses within the County, and they hope to complete their build in 2027.
All of the above programs will offer connection to awarded locations at no additional cost beyond the monthly price of service. This is required as part of the grant or subsidy agreements, which means that more than 11,000 Macon County residents will ultimately receive a high-speed broadband with NO connection fee.

Nantahala Broadband Expansion Project

Jeff Lee, LittleT Broadband
We appreciate the recent work by Thomas Sherrill of the Franklin Press in his effort to provide an overview of broadband expansion efforts in Macon County. Though Macon County has a number of projects "in the works", for many of us without or with limited access to high-speed internet it is hard to be patient as we wait for some of these project to begin connecting homes and businesses.
One such project that was initiated by Macon County in 2023 is the Nantahala Broadband Expansion project. After requesting  permission from the Board of Commissioners in the fall of 2022 and receiving approval in January of 2023, the Macon County Broadband Committee released a Request for Proposals (RFP) seeking a provider to begin deployment of fiber broadband services in the Nantahala Township. 
Though the initial intent of the proposed project was to use County general funds in the form of a grant to kickstart this broadband effort similar to the project initiated for south Macon in 2020, within a week of the RFP release the County was notified of changes in the NC statutes governing ways that counties were allowed to use grants. To avoid entanglement with the new NC statute which restricts county’s abilities to offer grants for broadband expansion, the Broadband Committee changed the scope of the proposed project and revised the RFP. This revised RFP requested proposals to extend fiber broadband service to five (5) County facilities that serve the Nantahala township as anchor institutions with the goals of creating public WiFi hot spots, and improving public safety. Rather than offering a grant, the County’s new request was for the direct procurement of service to the listed 5 facilities, which included:
  • Nantahala Volunteer Fire & Rescue - Main Station, Wayah Rd.
  • Nantahala Volunteer Fire & Rescue - Substation, Winding Stair Rd
  • Nantahala EMS - Junaluska Rd
  • Nantahala Recreation Center - Junaluska Rd
  • New Nantahala Library and Community Center - White Oak Ln
BalsamWest and Charter Communications provided responses to the RFP, and after thorough review of the proposed solutions and timelines, at the recommendation of the Broadband Committee the Board of Commissioners approved the selection of BalsamWest to implement the project.  The Board further gave permission to the Committee to begin negotiations with BalsamWest and produce a formal agreement. The agreement was approved by the Board in September, which called for the County to pay BalsamWest $350,000 in non-recurring connection charges to construct the fiber network and $9,552 in an initial lump sum to cover internet service to the 5 facilities for the first year.
Since the execution of the formal agreement in September, BalsamWest has been working to complete engineering plans, acquire materials, seek permit approvals, and coordinate construction plans with a fiber contractor. At this time the permit process is mostly complete and BalsamWest hopes to begin fiber construction next month, January 2024. A representative from BalsamWest will be making an update presentation to the Macon County Board of Commissioners at the January 9th Board meeting.
To complement the fiber construction work which will connect the 5 Nantahala County facilities, the County has contracted LittleT Broadband to coordinate and administer the procurement and installation of the network equipment required at each facility to provide the internet and public WiFi capabilities. Through a Request for Quotations process LittleT has secured a network systems provider to procure and install equipment, and has applied for a broadband adoption grant through the Southwest Commission on behalf of Macon County which will be used to cover the equipment costs. We are excited to see this broadband expansion project come together. With a little luck on weather and equipment lead times, we are hopeful to see this project completed in Q2 of 2024.
Discussions have already begun on further broadband expansion in the Nantahala area after completion of this initial effort. The creation of this initial fiber network is just the stepping stone needed to support further expansion.

BalsamWest GREAT Grant for Macon County

Jeff Lee, Little T Broadband

BalsamWest Fibernet LLC applied for and received a GREAT award for Macon County. Though their application was submitted in May of 2022 at the same time as Frontier's application, the BalsamWest award was announced as part of GREAT Round 2 in July of 2023. The grant agreement was signed between BalsamWest, Macon County, and the State in September of 2023. This $992,000 grant will provide fiber service to 263 homes and businesses in the Otto and Scaly Mountain areas of Macon County. BalsamWest has 2 years to complete this build, which means they must activate service to all 263 awarded locations by September of 2025.

The County was pleased to see this grant award received, as it will leverage previous investments by the County and BalsamWest in building the south Macon fiber backbone. Though BalsamWest is already engaged in expanding fiber service to homes and businesses along the fiber route, this grant will help to accelerate that expansion effort.

BalsamWest has requested to provide a presentation to the Macon County Board of Commissioners in January 2024. We look forward to this update on their progress and to learn more about their future plans.

The PDF file available for download below provides a summary of the grant that was provided to the Board of Commissioners in July, and a map illustrating the award locations.


Frontier GREAT Grant for Macon County

Jeff Lee, Little T Broadband

The GREAT grant is a broadband grant program developed by the State of North Carolina to help address the need for rural broadband expansion. The Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) program was originally enacted in 2018 by the State legislature, but unfortunately the program was not sufficiently funded through State funds to make real impact across the state. In 2021 the GREAT program was funded with $350M of federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and the first awards from this newly funded program were announced in the fall of 2022.

Frontier Communications applied for and received a GREAT award for Macon County. The award was announced in September of 2022 and the grant agreement was signed between Frontier, Macon County, and the State in May of 2023. This $3.8M grant will provide fiber service to 2700 homes and businesses throughout the County. Frontier has 2 years to complete this build, which means they must activate service to all 2700 awarded locations by May of 2025.

Though there are many of us in Macon County that have had a less than favorable experience with them, Frontier has been communicating to us that they are working to reinvent themselves as a company. They went through bankruptcy 2020 and have emerged in 2021 as a company with new corporate management, new funding, and a new competitive corporate vision. Though only time will tell if they are successful in this endeavor, their vision seems solid and they are on a path toward this goal.

Since May of this year, Frontier has been actively engaged in planning and engineering for the build throughout the County. They currently have contractors working out in the community to assess the condition of power poles and other assets needed to complete the build. If you see Frontier contractors working in your area, that is a good sign that things are happening. We saw them out in the Tessentee area just this past week. Our understanding is that active construction will start on the project in January of 2024.

A representative from Frontier recently gave a presentation to the Macon County Board of Commissioners at the November 2023 meeting. A copy of the Frontier public presentation can be downloaded from the link below. Hopefully you will find this presentation very informative about their plans and build timeline.

Frontier achieving success with this GREAT grant program will provide benefit to not only the 2700 award locations but to many other nearby home and business locations across the County. We look forward to watching their progress.


Charter RDOF Award in Macon County 2023

 Jeff Lee, Little T Broadband

One of the first broadband grant/subsidy programs to make the news in recent years was a program called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). This is a federal broadband subsidy program administered by the FCC in which areas defined by census blocks were assessed as eligible for funding if no homes in that block were receiving internet service of 25/3 or better. Internet service providers bid on these eligible blocks nation-wide through a reverse auction (lowest bidder wins). RDOF auction winners receive a federal subsidy based on the number of homes in the awarded census block which is paid out over a 10 year period. The funds for this subsidy come from the Universal Service Fund (USF) which is revenue that comes from fees leveed on telecommunication providers and FCC license holders and are not based on any of the recent federal funding legislation such as ARPA or IIJA. The RDOF auction 904 was held in 2020, and winners were announced in December of 2020. Actual awards to winning providers did not start rolling out until the second half of 2021 with many awards not issued until 2022.

In the State of North Carolina, Charter Communications won most of the RDOF awards and won all eligible census blocks in Macon County. Charter’s award was received from the FCC in March of 2022, and per the rules of the RDOF program they will have until March of 2028 (6 years) to build high-speed internet connections to all homes in their awarded census blocks. Charter began receiving subsidy payments from the USF in March of 2022 and will continue to receive subsidy payments until 2032 (10 years). Though all RDOF award recipients are required by the program to meet certain build commitments, they are measured against these commitments at the state level, so as long as they are building somewhere in the state and meeting the RDOF build commitments they remain in good standing with the program.

In Macon County, the RDOF award represents 60% of the eligible unserved locations (locations with less than 25/3 service). At the County level, we want very much for Charter to succeed and build to all committed locations. This will mean that over 8000 homes and businesses in the County will receive high-speed internet. Unfortunately the RDOF program for Macon County has a number of issues.

  • Charter is not yet building in Macon County. Though Charter is actively building elsewhere, they have no infrastructure in much of WNC, with the closest presence at the start of the program in Waynesville. This means that to get service into Macon County, Charter must first build across Haywood and Jackson counties.
  • Internet service to all awarded locations in all census blocks through RDOF is not a certainty. This means that though the RDOF awards exist for 60% of the County, there is no guarantee that the program will reach all of these locations. There are a variety of factors that can affect this, and unfortunately some will not come to light until very late in the 6 year build cycle (2028).
  • Areas (census blocks) that were awarded to Charter through RDOF area NOT eligible for other federal and state grant funds available for broadband expansion as long as the RDOF award holder remains in good standing. This issue becomes very important as many state programs have a 2 year build requirement, whereas RDOF has a 6 year build requirement.

A representative from Charter recently made a presentation to the Macon County Board of Commissioners at the November 2023 meeting. A link to a copy of the public presentation made to the Commissioners can be found at the bottom of this article. During this presentation, the Charter representative indicated that engineering and field assessment work have begun for Macon County, and it is their current plan to begin construction in Macon by Q2 of 2024 and to complete construction by mid 2027.

We continue to be hopeful that Charter will meet their tentative time commitment and will build connections to all awarded locations.


What is Broadband and Why do I Need It?

Jeff Lee, Little T Broadband

Though many are familiar with the term, I am still asked this question periodically. If you are not really familiar with the term broadband, this article is for you.

The word broadband is a technical term used in telecommunication to describe a family of techniques used to transmit information over communication systems. A  communication system that most are familiar with today is the internet, which is a world-wide communication network that connects individuals, businesses, schools, governments, and militaries, and has become an integral part of our society.

Broadband communication techniques are used to deliver high-speed internet connections, and the industry and society have adopted the term broadband to mean high-speed internet. So, when you hear the word broadband today, it is typically intended to mean "high-speed internet”.

So what is "high-speed" internet and why do I need it?

High-speed internet is a term that is meant to describe an internet connection that provides download and upload speeds greater than or equal to a chosen minimum standard. Download refers to information coming to your home or business from the internet, such as pages of information you see when you browse or videos that you watch while streaming such as Netflix or other streaming providers. Upload refers to information that is sent from your home or business to some destination out on the internet, which can be simple requests for download information or backups of your smart phone or computer sent to the cloud. This speed is usually listed or represented as a number like 25/3, which stands for 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload. Bits per second is used to measure how information flows through the internet, and megabit stands for 1000 bits.

The speeds which are considered high-speed have been a subject of much debate over the years. In the past this has been set as a minimum standard by the FCC, but in recent years with all of the grant money pouring into the industry to expand rural broadband, that definition has been modified by states and other federal government agencies as the FCC has not kept pace with actual internet usage in the industry. The need for high speeds continues to increase as we use the internet more during our daily life and we do things which require more information.

The current FCC minimum standard for high-speed internet is 25/3, but they are in the process of revising this to 100/20. Since 2022 the State of NC has set the minimum standard as 100/100 for all of the state grant programs. It is expected that this standard will continue to increase over time.

Typical internet speeds available depend on the type of connection to the home or business.

  • Rural DSL typically delivers less than 10/1
  • Fixed wireless typically delivers 20/2 or more if you can receive signal
  • Cable typically delivers 100/10 in our area but higher speeds are available in some locations
  • Fiber typically delivers 300/300 or faster

Fiber is considered the gold standard in the industry today and has the capability to deliver the fastest connection speeds. Most providers refer to fiber as a gigabit network which can deliver one million bits per second or more. That said, work is under way in both the fixed wireless and cable industries to improve speeds. DSL is being phased out across the country due to its limitations and the availability of better technologies.

All internet providers that have received grant or subsidy funds in Macon County since 2022 are deploying fiber and are advertising that they will deliver 1G/1G speeds (1 gigabit per second download and 1 gigabit per second upload). In future articles, I will talk about which providers are receiving grants or subsidies in our County and where they will be deploying.

November 2023 Update

Jeff Lee, Little T Broadband

Well, it has been some time since I have written any articles for the LittleT news blog.
That does not mean nothing is happing, it just speaks to my own lack of time to write.

Much has happened this year, including:

  • Two GREAT grant award agreements completed for Macon County
  • Start of engineering work and planning for the two GREAT grant projects
  • Approval and funding of a fiber connectivity initiative in the Nantahala Lake community
  • A grant opportunity to fund the installation of public hot spot equipment in the Nantahala Lake community
  • Announcement from Charter Communications that they plan to begin building in Macon County by mid 2024.

Bear with me over the next few weeks as I post more articles about these topics and more.
As always, we appreciate the continued support for our efforts.