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.