RDOF Update

Jeff Lee, LittleT Broadband

I posted an article back in late May about the FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund program (RDOF), and the tentative auction wins that could impact our area at some point in the future. Providers that submitted winning bids in the 904 auction were required to file long form applications by the end of January, 2021. Since that time, the FCC has been reviewing the long form applications with the goal of approving them and beginning the subsidy process for the providers that are ready to proceed.

The FCC released two documents late last month which announce preliminary results of their review. I say preliminary, because this review process has not yet been completed for all applications. My interpretation is that the FCC completed review for the smaller and easier applications, and is continuing the review/approval process for the larger and more difficult ones. To date, approval on bids for the auction's the largest winners including Charter Communications has not been announced. In the documents mentioned above, the FCC provided preliminary lists for auction bids that are Ready to Authorize, and Bids in Default.

Ready to Authorize


This document is a list of the first winning bidders whose long form applications have been approved and ready for grant subsidy funding. For these applicants, the FCC will issue a public notice directing the Universal Service Administration Company (USAC) to disperse support payments from the Universal Service Fund. The construction time clock for these providers will begin once the public notice has been issued and monthly support payments begin.

No winning bids for North Carolina have been approved as of this date.

Bids in Default


If a winning bidder either fails to submit a long form application within the required timeframe, or notifies the FCC they will not pursue one or more blocks for which they placed bids, the associated bid is considered "in default”. Census blocks for bids in default, will not be served by the associated provider, and these blocks will be returned to the eligible area pool to become available for the next auction. Providers that default on RDOF bids are subject to financial penalties, however the penalties are small compared to the cost of building a network, and are considered by some large companies to simply be a cost of doing business. In other words, these penalties do not prevent a company from bailing on their bid commitment if they decide the business case is not worth the effort.

4 small bids in eastern North Carolina are listed in default. However, no bids in the WNC area have yet been declared in default.


As previously mentioned, these published lists are preliminary. This means that there will be more bids added to the Ready to Authorize and Bids in Default lists. Unfortunately it is too early to tell where Macon and the other WNC counties will fall once the process is complete. 

How Can I Help?

Jeff Lee, LittleT Broadband

In addition to requests for updates on broadband developments, we have also received a few requests from individuals asking what they can do to help. Though not everyone has the time to become directly involved, there are a number of things that can be done by anyone to make a difference and help get our community better connected.

Take the NC Broadband Survey


One of the most important ways everyone in the area can help is by taking the NC Broadband Survey. Though I can hear the groans and see the eyes rolling at the discussion of yet another survey, this is far more important than many realize.

The number one challenge we face in bringing high-speed broadband into a rural area like WNC is money. Many of us live here because we enjoy the small town atmosphere, and lack of crowds and traffic that plague big metro areas. However, the lack of dense population makes it economically unattractive for broadband providers to come build in this area and deliver service. In most of our rural areas, it costs more to build a network than the money that can be received from service subscriptions. For this reason, one of the few ways to get high-speed broadband networks built in rural areas is to obtain grant funding from the state or federal government.

To date most federal and state broadband grant programs have relied on data collected by the FCC to determine broadband need in a given area. Unfortunately, the reporting of this data can suggest that there is greater coverage in an area than truly exists, and in many cases does not provide an accurate indication of conditions and need. To get a more realistic assessment of need, groups, counties, regions, and states are attempting to collect better information through surveys. This is one of the few ways an individual has to report the actual conditions at their home, business, or in their area.

Though LittleT, the WNC Region A Commission, and other groups have collected local survey information in the past, the state of North Carolina Broadband Information Office has undertaken the effort to create a survey with the goal of assembling a much more complete picture of need across the entire state. The advantage of a state supported and maintained survey is that it carries more weight and importance when used for federal grant applications, and it can be a primary tool for administering state grant funding.

Another nice feature about the NC Broadband Survey is that the state updates the data regularly and makes it available to cities, counties, regional commissions, and non-profit organizations like LittleT. This data can then be used to help compile eligibility and need cases for grant funding at the local level.

Please take 5 minutes to help by completing the NC Broadband Survey.

Letters of Support

As we work with Macon County, the Region A Commission, and partner providers to apply for state, federal, and private grant funding, we must demonstrate need and eligibility. Communities with strong local support are more successful in their efforts to obtain funding, and showing this support can go a long way towards helping to get a grant application approved.

One way a community can help do this is through letters of support and need. Such letters are powerful statements that help to reinforce the need and to endorse the funding effort.

Though it may take a few minutes of your day, please take time if possible and tell community leaders about your situation:

  • What is the current internet availability and quality at your location?
  • In what ways would availability of high-speed internet benefit your students or personal situation?
  • Do you have the need for tele-health services?
  • How is high-speed internet essential for your business to compete?

Though a personalized letter that describes your unique situation is always best, we have also provided templates for a Letter of Support.  You can use the template as a starting point, or just sign it and send it. Click on the links below to download one of the template copies.

  • Letter Of Support.docx - Microsoft Word version of the template that can be downloaded and edited using Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Open Office, Apple Pages, Apple Textedit, etc.
  • Letter Of Support.pdf - PDF version of the template that can be downloaded and printed.

Ideally, please send letters electronically. This can simply be done as an email, or an email with a DOCX or PDF letter attached. Letters from individuals and families are welcome. Letters from businesses and especially on business letterhead are also needed. Letters should be sent to:

Tommy Jenkins
Director of Economical Development Commission, Macon County
Macon County Broadband Committee member
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Get Involved

LittleT Broadband is a non-profit organization with no paid staff. One of the issues that we have struggled with is the lack of volunteer help. Because of this, we must prioritize where the time is spent, which means that many things including communicating with all of you falls behind. As an organization, LittleT could do more with additional volunteers.

A technical understanding of broadband is not required for you to be able to make a difference in helping to bring greater internet connectivity to Macon County. A little of your time- or even more if you have it- can help us move this project forward, faster. Working from your home is possible for many of our projects. Currently we need assistance with non-technical activities involving communication, such as a mailing list and reaching out to members of the community. People to research possible funding options including grants available would help us to plan the financing of additional phases of the project, and grant writers are always needed. Other specific skills such as website development and maintenance would be of use to LittleT as well. Once community center hotspots are available, staffing, supplies, after-school programs, public health outreach, etc. will provide other potential areas for local volunteers to assist.

We have momentum now and better internet in our community is becoming a reality with the South Macon Broadband Expansion Project under way. If you want to become involved at any level, please reach out to us via the Contact Us form on our website.




August 2021 Update

Jeff Lee, LittleT Broadband

We have received a number of “Contact Us” emails asking for updates. Of course everyone is eager to hear of progress. Though I have not posted anything in a couple of months, it is not for lack of activity on broadband.

Rather than write about many topics in a single article, my plan is to break up the topics into separate news posts over the next several days. It is my hope that this will help everyone to understand what is happening on the many different and ongoing broadband topics. 

South Macon Broadband Expansion Project

This project is the most near and dear to the hearts of residents in the Otto and Scaly Mountain communities. Recall that the first phase of this effort calls for the construction of a fiber optic backbone network that will connect from the Franklin city limits, through Otto, and then on to Scaly Mountain. To help get this project started, Macon County committed $580,000 to help cover a portion of the material and construction costs.

Though there has not yet been any active construction on this project, there has been much preparatory work in progress required to make it happen. Since my last report at the end of May, the following activies have been under way:

  • Design and Planning - Before the start of any construction project, designs and plans must be completed prior to filing for permits, easements, etc. The design for the fiber backbone has been completed.
  • Permits - To construct a fiber optic network as with any large construction project, many permits, easements, and agreements must be filed and completed with the State, County, DOT, local land owners, utility companies, etc. This process can be a lengthy one, and most all are required before the start of construction. Balsam West (the County's chosen partner/provider) has reported that the permitting process is now mostly complete, and they are in process with completing the necessary utility company pole attach agreements.
  • Materials and Equipment have been Ordered - As has been previously mentioned, the lead time to take delivery on orders of fiber optic cable and other materials associated with fiber networks is extremely long right now due to the boom in the broadband industry, the pandemic, and many other factors. Orders were placed for the materials required by the backbone project in the April timeframe. Balsam West anticipates beginning to receive these materials within the next few months, allowing the start of actual construction.
  • Construction Contractor Engaged - Balsam West has identified and engaged a fiber construction contractor for the backbone project. The contractor has begun the process of scheduling and planning its labor and equipment needs to complete the job. The goal is that the construction plan, labor, and equipment will all be in place when the first material begins to arrive from suppliers.

So, when can we all anticipate this part of the project to be complete? The goal, assuming the availability of materials in the expected timeframe and barring any unforeseen issues, is that active construction will begin by mid November of this year. That would allow the completion of the backbone just after the first of the year 2022.

Next Steps

Once the fiber backbone is completed, what is next? In other words, when do those of us in south Macon get a high-speed broadband connection to our homes and businesses? Believe me, this is the part my household is anxiously awaiting, given the dismally slow and intermittant internet connection that we are currently "fortunate" to have. Those of us with internet service no matter how slow are indeed fortunate, as there are many homes in our area with no service at all.

For the South Macon Broadband Expansion project, the expansion of services into the community is called Phase 2, with Phase 1 being construction and completion of the backbone. Work to plan and find funding for Phase 2 is actively under way. This is an effort in which LittleT has been involved with Macon County, WNC's Region A Commission, and Balsam West for the last several months.

There are a number of new funding opportunities coming up which could help cover or offset construction costs of this Phase 2 community expansion. There are also some interim development activities being planned which may help to provide a bridge of service for some residents and businesses. Given that there are a number of different funding opportunities and planned developments, I plan to write about them in subsequent news posts. Stay tuned for more info.

Thanks to all for your continued support and patience as we make measured progress towards getting our community better connected.

RDOF and Macon County

Jeff Lee, LittleT Broadband

I have been meaning to write a blog article about this topic for some time, after the news came out earlier this year about FCC RDOF auction winners. Better late than never, I suppose.

What is RDOF?

Mentioned in previous posts, RDOF stands for Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. This is a federal subsidy program for broadband/internet expansion that is administered by the FCC, and is a continuation of earlier programs called Connect America and Connect America II. The FCC collects information about internet availability across the US and then maps this based on population census blocks. Those blocks with less than a 25/3 internet service available (25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream) are eligible for RDOF subsidy funding based on a reverse auction process (lowest bidder wins). Established telecommunications and internet service providers bid on census blocks in hopes of winning the auction and ultimately constructing new networks that are subsidized through federal funds.

Though well intentioned, the RDOF program is not perfect. For example, the way the FCC determines eligibility for census blocks is flawed and has been the source of much debate. They depend on existing service providers to submit annual forms (Form 477) which state what services they provide in a given area. If a single home in a block has service of 25/3 or better, providers are allowed to declare the whole area served and it becomes ineligible for federal subsidies. The FCC knows that this process is flawed as do most states. Unfortunately any changes will be for future programs and will not affect the current program and elgibility of blocks.

Another problem is forcing providers who win the auction to follow through. Previous versions of this program have funded the construction of fiber networks that were never put into service. We have 80+ miles of buried fiber in the Otto area, that once constructed was never activated, and was of course paid for by our tax dollars. These previous programs, developed in part by the telecommunication companies and lobby organizations, lacked sufficient control of the funding to ensure that service was actually provided. The current RDOF program has many changes intended to help improve this and keep companies more accountable. Only time will tell if the new program is more effective in this area.

Who was the Winner for Macon County and when will this new broadband/internet project start?

At the end of 2020, the RDOF auction winners were announced for the latest funding round. For the eligible census blocks within Macon County, Charter Communications won the auction for these blocks, with a promise of $9M in subsidies from the fed. There were a number of news articles highlighting this in the local papers. Sounds great, problems solved. So, what does this actually mean, and when will I have high-speed internet at my house? Well, don’t hold your breath… 

It is important to understand that just because one or more service providers won the auction for certain census block areas, the steps of actually approving these providers is not yet complete, and there is a lengthy process that is followed before any subsidy payments flow. To win the auction for an eligible census block, an applicant submits what is call a “Short Form” application. This short form contains basic information about the company and its plans, including what performance network they propose to provide and their bid to build and provide service. If there is competition for a block, auction bidders win based on their bid and the type of service they propose to provide. Bear in mind that there are not many companies competing for census blocks in difficult areas like WNC.

Once the auction winners are notified by the FCC, they must then submit a "Long Form" application for the the blocks won. This long form contains much more detailed information about the proposed plan, including the network design and the financial information that demonstrates the proposed network will become a sustainable business. All long form applications must be reviewed and ultimately approved by the FCC, a process which may involve multiple iterations and can take many months. Another shortfall in these programs is that winners don’t always submit long forms for every block won in the auction. This is referred to as defaulting on an auction bid. Though there are imposed financial penalties should this happen, they are not substantial for a large corporation and can be considered a cost of going through the process. All this means is that until all long forms are approved and published sometime later this year, we will not really know which blocks within Macon County are to actually benefit from RDOF subsidies and an eventual broadband network.

After the long form application is approved by the FCC, annual subsidy payments will begin to the service provider and a time clock for construction starts. To remain in compliance with the program, a provider who has begun to receive federal subsidy payments must provide service to 40% of the of the eligible households within the first 3 years, and must provide service to an additional 20% per year up through year 6 (100% service). Annual subsidy payments then continue through year 10. There are financial penalties associated with not meeting these compliance targets.

Assuming all of Charter’s plans are approved, when can we get service from them here in Macon County?

This is a burning question on the minds of all Maconions needing access to real high-speed internet. This is also the question on the minds of the Macon County Broadband Committee and similar committees and county governments across WNC. To get some answers, the Appalachian Regional Commission arranged a zoom call with representatives from Charter back in March of this year. All WNC counties affected by the Charter RDOF wins were represented on this call.

Though making no hard commitments, the representative from Charter provided the following tid bits of information during the zoom call.

  1. The Charter rep stated that the company is committed to building a network and serving all blocks won in the RDOF auction. That remains to be seen, and we will not actually know for sure until long forms are approved and published by the FCC later this year.
  2. Upon long form approval, they will spend up to one year in the planning phase prior to any construction.
  3. During years 2-3 they will focus on construction in the easily reachable areas. Since Charter’s closest network presence to our area is eastern Haywood County, that means they will likely work their way West from Waynesville, and build out areas as they go to ensure meeting the FCC compliance targets.
  4. Years 4-5-6. They will continue to build West into Macon County and beyond. Areas close to major roads would likely see service first, with those harder to reach seeing service by the end of year 6.

Great! So when will I see service at my house?

Based on the responses from Charter, it is unlikely that Macon County will see much if any new service until after year 3. Remember the clock will not actually start until late 2021 at the ealiest. This is purely speculation, but is based on the facts that Charter must construct a new network from East to West and that construction will take years.

Being a Macon County resident, when you can get service from Charter depends on several things.

  • You must live in a census block for which Charter is able to follow through.
    In other words, Charter has chosen to complete a long form application for your area, it has been approved by the FCC, and they have started to receive subsidy payments from the Fed.
  • Where in your area do you live?
    Are you close to a main road or on the side of a mountain ridge. Locations that are easy for construction will receive service before more difficult areas.

My intent in providing this info is not to reduce optimism that internet progress is coming, but rather to provide a more complete picture of the process and situation. When news comes out of a big federal grant win for our area, it is hard not to get caught up in the excitement. However, the reality is that RDOF, like all federal grant and subsidy programs, is not perfect and takes effect over many years. In the case of Charter and their arrival in Macon County, we are talking about a process that will take 6 years or more.

Know that other internet service options are being developed. By the time Charter reaches our area, the hope is that this will become another option available which will increase competition and keep costs down.

Progress on the South Macon Fiber Backbone

Planning and development work is now under way on the South Macon Fiber Backbone project that is being executed by Balsam West.

As part of the planning effort, last Tuesday, May 18, we met with representatives from Balsam West at the Otto Community center and the Sky Valley-Scaly Mountain Volunteer Fire and Rescue facilities. Balsam West would like to house some of the network equipment that will support both Otto and Scaly Mountain in these respective facilities. The visits to these sites went well, with a number of implementation options discussed and tentative plans formed. Once a more concrete plan is ready for each site, we will be meeting with the Community Association Boards and Fire Departments to review and discuss in more detail. Ultimately the CAs and VFDs will need to approve co-location of the Balsam West equipment in the facilities.

Given the quantity of high-speed broadband that is being contstructed around the country, there is very high demand for fiber optic cable. Fiber production plants arround the country and in Europe are currently running beyond 100% to meet demand. This will likely impact our project to some degree, as the lead times to order and take delivery of new fiber optic cable may be 6-9 months. Balsam West will be working to build as much of the network as possible while waiting for delivery of some cable and electronic components.

Moving Forward

As many of you may have heard, Macon County and Balsam West Fibernet reached an agreement. This agreement was approved by the Macon County Board of Commissioners and the Balsam West Board of Directors in mid April, 2021.

As per the Request for Proposals from the County and the subsequent winning proposal from Balsam West, contstruction will begin on a fiber backbone in southern Macon County. This new backbone will extend from the Franklin city limits, to Otto, and on to Scaly Moutain. The completion of this backbone will initially bring high speed internet service to the Otto and Scaly Mountain community centers and volunteer fire and rescue facilities, and then enable expansion into the surrounding communities.

A joint press release on the project is forthcoming. We will post that when it becomes available.


February 2021 Update

First, let us appologize to our supporters that have been waiting for an update. Between waiting for news on grants, the holidays, and the pandemic, time has gotten away from us.

Though the original intent behind the formation of LittleT Broadband included applying for and securing grant funding in our own name, we have learned through research and exploration of this process that the grant programs available are structured to support established internet service providers. As a non-profit organization with no established business and customer base, we found it impossible to secure grants on our own.

That realization has pushed us to focus on the "facilitation" part of our charter.
Our work last fall was to assist our partner, Balsam West, in applying for grants and to submit a proposal to Macon County in response to the Request for Proposal (RFP) released in October.

NC GREAT Grant Program

As detailed in our previous blog, during early October we worked with Balsam West and the Appalachian Regional Commission to help prepare a grant application and proposal for submission to the NC GREAT 2020 CARES Act Supplemental Round. That application was submitted on October 14, 2020.

After some funding delays in the NC GREAT process, winners of this grant round were announced in mid December. Unfortunately, Balsam West was not successful in securing a grant during this round. Out of over 80 applicants, only 11 providers were selected. This round will distribute approximately $30M to projects in 18 counties. No awards were given in Macon county.

The feeling is that the NC DIT Broadband GREAT committee may have focused more on pure fiber proposals. There is also speculation that Morris receiving a grant for Macon county in 2019 may have created a disadvantage.

The hope was that funds from this grant would help develop and accelerate the distribution of new high speed internet servcies from the planned backbone network to homes and businesses. We must now look to other funding sources to drive this expansion.

Macon County Request For Proposals (RFP)

During the end of October, LittleT Broadband assisted Balsam West in the effort to prepare a response to Macon County's RFP. This proposal was submitted on November 2, 2020. In December, the county contacted Balsam West informing them that they had been selected as the winner of the south Macon internet expansion project.

Since the start of the year, Balsam West has been working with the county to formalize the contractual business relationship. That work should be completed by the end of February, and we are hopeful that work on the network backbone project will begin sometime in March.

Construction of the network backbone will bring critical high-speed internet capability into the Otto and Scaly areas. As the backbone is completed, sevice will initially be offered to those residences and businesses along the path. Further expansion into the rest of the community will happen as funding permits.

SpaceX StarLink

We are often asked, what about StarLink? When will it be available here?

SpaceX continues to make progress with their StarLink service. At this time, they are still in the public beta test phase, and are only able to offer their "Better Than Nothing" service in northern lattitudes. This new service appears to have much promise, offering speeds from 40Mbs-120Mbps with latency of around 40ms.

However, the limited service that is available is still far from prime time. Though the speed and latency appear to meet expectations, there are constant black out periods lasting from seconds to minutes long where no connection is available. Much longer outages have also been experienced by some testers. This issue is due to the fact that SpaceX still does not have enough operational satellites in place to maintain a constant connection. It is anticipated that this condition will improve over time.

SpaceX's ability to extend service into our area will depend on their ability to get many hundreds of additional satellites aloft, and to build a network of new ground stations in the southern US. Based on their current rate of progress, we do not anticipate that beta testing for the southern US will begin until mid to late 2021 at the earliest. Keep in mind that availability of beta testing still does not constitute a commercial service offering. As their initial beta service has been running close to 6 months now, it is not unreasonable to expect that a beta period in the sothern US would last 6 months or more before commercial service becomes available. So, this could mean availability sometime in 2022 for most folks.

SpaceX received a sizeable award from the FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction last fall. No awardees have yet received any federal funding as they must submit their long form applications later this month. Once long forms are submitted, reviewed/vetted, and accepted, award winners like SpaceX will be eligible to start receiving funding payments. It should be noted that there are groups and some members of congress that are contesting a number of the FCC RDOF awards. It is possible that some of the awardees may lose part or all of their funding opportunities after review from the new FCC leadership.