Updates on RDOF, NTIA, and StarLink
Jeff Lee, Little T Broadband
There have been several programs that we have been following which have potential to bring high-speed broadband service to our area. Unfortunately there seems to be a theme of delays with all.
We mentioned the FCC RDOF program (Rural Digital Opportunity Fund) a few months back. Recall that Charter Communications submitted winning auction bids to receive federal subsidy funding for expansion of their cable service into Macon County and other parts of Western North Carolina. This has been of particular interest to those of us working on alternative broadband solutions, as approved federal subsidy programs granted in a specific area can make that same area ineligible for other funding programs.
The FCC must go through a thorough review and vetting process before they authorize a vender to actually proceed and receive subsidies for these winning auction bids. Though many hundreds of bids have already received authorization from the FCC, to date Charter has not received authorization for any of their bids nation wide.
It is not anticipated that any expansion by Charter into Macon County will be seen until 3-6 years after they receive authorization for bids. Though this means no help from Charter any time soon, it also means that many of the areas for which they won bids are still eligible for other grant funding.
Back in August, Macon County in partnership with Balsam West and support from Little T Broadband submitted an application to the NTIA Broadband Infrastructure grant program. NTIA was scheduled to announce winners of these grants on November 15, and to begin authorizing funding by November 29.
Earlier this week, Macon County and Balsam West received notification from NTIA that application selection and grant awards have been delayed until early 2022. NTIA received 230 applications totaling $2.5B for a grant program authorized to give out $288M in awards. Because of this 10x over subscription of the grant program, the NTIA has been a bit overwhelmed and must be extremely thorough in their review of applications and selection of winners.
Though there are other sources of funding that have been made available for broadband including the new federal infrastructure bill, it typically takes 6 months or more for federal and state agencies to draft and advertise grant programs to use these new funds, and another 6-18 months after that to solicit applications, select winers, and begin to distribute funds. As an example, the FCC RDOF program took funds allocated in 2019, conducted their auction and selected winners by the end of 2020, and has still not reviewed and authorized all funding as we approach the end of 2021.
The message here is that we must remain patient. Nothing happens quickly when the federal and state governments are involved.
SpaceX continues to be the golden child of the space launch industry, and they are continuing to boost more StarLink satellites into orbit. This has allowed them to expand the StarLink coverage areas, but their service rollout is moving at a much slower pace than they had planned.
I placed a deposit with StarLink in February of this year when they began accepting orders. For most of the year, my account listed that StarLink anticipated enabling service in our area by late 2021. I recently received an email from StarLink that their roll out has been delayed, and my account now lists availability in late 2022.
After following StarLink progress in the news, I have expected this letter and delay in service. Though there are many issues causing SpaceX to delay the rollout of their StarLink service, one of the more significant issues is related to their ability to produce the StarLink terminals (the receiver dish and router). Like every other company that uses electronics, SpaceX is experiencing significant delays in chip manufacturing. Shortages and delays in the computer chip industry have impacted product availability across the market, including iPhones, televisions, automobiles, etc.
Those of us that have been waiting on StarLink will have to wait a bit longer.