Where is our High-Speed Internet?
We are now almost halfway through the month of February. There have been a number broadband program announcements in the last couple of weeks and there is continued work on programs already underway.
South Macon Broadband Expansion Project
Work continues in the effort to complete the first phase of this project through activation of the new fiber backbone from Franklin to Scaly Mountain. Though most of the construction activity along 441 is complete, Balsam West must complete the execution of easement agreements in order to finish the fiber build. We continue to be hopeful for this activity to be wrapped up in the coming weeks.
The backbone completion will culminate in the activation of fiber service to the three community facilities in South Macon: the Otto Community Center, the Scaly Mountain Community Center, and the Sky Valley-Scaly Mountain Volunteer Fire & Rescue. The hotspot equipment is already installed and ready in these facilities, and will be fully activated once the fiber service is available.
RDOF Auction 904
On January 28, the FCC announced that the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction bids covering a large portion of Macon County were ready to authorize. Once financial approval is finalized in the next 2-4 weeks, the FCC will fully authorize Charter Communications (doing business as Time Warner Cable in North Carolina) to begin receiving subsidy payments to build their expanded network in WNC and other parts of the state.
Charter will have 6 years to build out their network. Given that Charter’s closest presence to Macon County is the East side of Waynesville, we anticipate it will be several years before their construction makes its way this far to the West and South. Though we are hopeful that Charter will fulfill its commitment and build into Macon County, there are no guarantees as many things can happen over a 6 year timespan. We will continue to monitor progress on their activity.
NTIA Broadband Infrastructure Grant
To date, NTIA has made no award announcements for the Broadband Infrastructure Grant program for which applications were submitted last August. Our speculation is that NTIA has been waiting for the FCC to complete its backlog of RDOF 904 bid authorizations prior to releasing any award announcements. Based on the FCC authorization of the Charter RDOF bids in Macon County, our view is that there is now very little chance of Macon receiving an NTIA grant award. We will continue to monitor this program and announce any final results once available.
As this grant program was intended to be a vehicle to help fund expansion of fiber service from the South Macon backbone into the surrounding community, we are now actively looking to other grant programs to fill this funding need.
NC GREAT Grant Program
On January 31, the NCDIT Broadband Infrastructure Office announced the release of the GREAT grant program for 2022 and opened the window for applications (Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology). The GREAT 2022 round is being funded through allocation of federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds received by the state, and the $350M grant pool is the largest broadband funding effort ever administered by the state of North Carolina.
The disappointing news that came with this announcement is that the state legislation which dictates the areas eligible for this grant funding has stipulated that areas designated to receive funding through other federal and state programs are not eligible. This means that the RDOF 904 areas which cover 62% of Macon County are not eligible for grant funding through the NC GREAT program. This includes a large part of the area within the South Macon Expansion Project. The state legislature did make changes to other rules, but they allowed the rule to remain which protects the RDOF areas, creating a financial road block for other programs planned and under way.
Though we cannot seek funding for RDOF areas through this program, there are still a number of smaller areas that are still eligible. We are working with Macon County and local providers to identify these eligible areas and prepare grant applications for this program. As applications for the remaining eligible areas are developed and submitted, we will provide updates.
Future Grant Programs
The release of the new NC GREAT program is not very favorable for our area, however the encouraging news is that there are several more grant funding programs in development that will be released later this year. It is too late to change eligibility rules for GREAT, but it may not be too late for our legislators to improve the situation in our area through the coming programs.
Please see the map linked above. If you are in an area that is excluded from funding due to RDOF, feel free to contact your local state legislators and let them know that the eligibility rules need to be changed for future broadband grant programs.
Please Take the NC Broadband Survey
One of the most important ways everyone in the area can help is by taking the NC Broadband Survey. Please take 5 minutes to complete this survey if you have not done so already.
We are actively using information from this survey to justify which areas in our county are in need of high-speed broadband service. If you live in an area that has no internet access or does not have at least 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up, you need to report it through the NC Broadband Survey.
For homes & businesses without internet service, participants can take the survey by phone. Residents without internet service but with phones capable of text messaging can text “internet” to 919-750-0553. Standard text messaging rates will apply.
Can't Text? Residents with landlines or cellphones that do not have texting capability may place a voice call to 919-750-0553. An interactive voice response system will guide them through a series of short questions to obtain the caller’s address and register it in the database as having no internet capability at all.