Little T April Update

Tony Deakins, Little T Broadband

The following article was published in the April edition of the Scaly Mountain newsletter.
Since the creation of the original article, our survey response count has reached 213. If you have not already done so and live in the Otto or Scaly areas, please respond to our survey. You can get started by clicking the Survey link at the top of the web page.

To date, we have roughly 187 responses. I would very much like to see this move to over 200, as that is a very strong response for surveys of this nature indicating high interest. So, yes; I would love for people to complete responses to this survey if they have not already. And, we thank everyone who has provided us with this information. It has been telling. Of the responses we received, 47% work at home,26% have school age children at home and 13% have need of telemedical support at home. We are still applying analytics to the data these surveys provide, so I expect additional indicators within the near future. Again, thanks to everyone who has provided us with this information and hopefully more will do so within the next couple of weeks. Hey, what else do you have to do during “lock down”?

I recently published a letter that appeared in the Macon County News and was submitted as well to the Franklin Press. The article emphasized the value of internet access in times like this showing its value beyond simply an entertainment medium. As this emergency persists into May and probably longer, internet access becomes even more vital. I encourage people throughout Western North Carolina and, in particular, our South Macon County communities, to write their elected officials in Raleigh to help show the irrationality of the North Carolina legislature in its being more a part of the problem than any solution to rural broadband access. The supposed “Great Grant” is a paltry and ill-organized band aid to a problem that deserves a much greater priority than it has so far been given. Hopefully, this current pandemic and its “stay at home” mandates reinforce the need for rural broadband access. At minimum, any prohibitions on local communities providing themselves, using local tax and public grant money, with this vital resource should be fully rescinded. Again: Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way.

As for any of the current approaches to satellite services, I wish them well and hope it ultimately works. There should be some consolation for not being able to see the stars at night through the cloud of large and small comsats. Right now, that technology is still in its “hype” phase and there are several issues that remain to be demonstrated as solved. Not the least of these is “latency” which, the last time I saw any progress reports, still was around 700 milliseconds. And, that is just the part directly attributable to satellite round-trip. This issue caused the FCC to withhold recognition of satellite-delivered internet as a generally viable solution and, as such, not eligible for federal grants.

Satellite delivered internet is focused largely, if not quietly, on the air travel and ships-at-sea market which is expected to be huge within the near future and forms a revenue base rich for content providers. This market is not as sensitive to latency and other issues as the more terrestrial markets. Also, certain terrestrial markets such as found in the broad plains and prairies of the western U.S., Australia, Argentina and the Russian steppes likely would benefit. But, for those of us in “bumpy” and “leafy” locales, not so much. And, we are, if anything, not a revenue rich market. So, ask yourself, if you were the business genius behind the several versions of “Sky Net”-like start-ups, would you target a revenue-poor market? Oh, and did I mention, the FCC has denied the satellite companies access to federal grants due to the latency issues.

Little T Broadband in partnership with Balsam West Fibernet, has finalized the “Fast-Start” routes and cost estimates. “Fast-Start” is a forerunner to the larger phased deployment. We will be requesting grant funding from the county. We will meet the “only existing ISPs need apply” requirement that caused us to not receive the funding from our last grant request (…despite the numerous rumors to the contrary). Also, we will be submitting requests to The Golden Leaf Fund and other smaller grant providers for funds to build this initial phase out. We thought we might get this up and running by the end of the year, but the pandemic has slowed everybody down substantially. Once this has marched-off into history, we will be able to reset expectations on when Fast-Start will begin providing service as well as the follow-on buildout plans.

Frontier Backruptcy

Tony Deakins, Little T Broadband

Recently, I received a number of phone calls regarding Frontier Communications’ announcement that it was entering bankruptcy. This is a ploy often used by large corporations for narrow purposes, such as thwarting a particular litigation or other claims. This, however, was not the case with Frontier, as they have struggled with a debt proportionately equal to the national debt of several countries. A debt so large, filing bankruptcy was more or less anticlimactic. With a major bond series coming eminently due, had they not taken this course, it was likely their bondholders would have forced the move.

So, what does this mean for Frontier’s Otto and Scaly Mountain customers? Well initially, not much. It likely will take the balance of this year to sort out the bankruptcy. In the longer term, there are risks that form up around the following circumstances. Frontier already has sold-off a number of its most profitable markets. In “restructuring” their debts, they may well have to convert more of their remaining profitable markets into cash. It is certain they will have to constrain outflows, which lead to reduction in employees and rigorous efforts to reduce operating costs. That is to say, they will have to quit spending money just short of turning out the lights.

One troubling cost reduction tactic is reducing their commitment to marginally or unprofitable markets ... of which we are one. Frontier won’t withdraw service from profit- challenged markets where federal or state regulators will not allow them to do so, until a replacement provider can be found. Unfortunately, North Carolina is not one of those states, and the current regime at the FCC is not likely to allow itself to be involved either. It will be a couple of years or more before this all plays out, so there is no immediate reason for panic. And, it won’t happen abruptly, either. We will see customer service become insidiously less responsive. Replacement of the ancient equipment operating currently in our communities is not likely to be updated. And then, there will be the appeal to the state to subsidize operations here to which – unless there is a material change in attitude in Raleigh – there will be no reply that will give us solace. And, the larger telecoms and ISPs already have demonstrated no interest in our communities.

All that notwithstanding, we have a bit of time here to move forward with currently the only initiative in unincorporated Macon County to bring forth a viable alternative: Little T Broadband Services. And, we are making progress, albeit inch by inch and row by row. Our greatest obstacle remains sourcing funding that is not otherwise prohibited by the state legislature, and that is scant few as it is. I don’t mean to say they won’t allow us to receive local government grants, rather they won’t allow local government to fund our grant requests. To offset the seemingly inevitable consequences of Frontier’s bankruptcy, we will need to garner more that good wishes from local funding sources, and we will have to work faster than the current pace. From here-on, it’s; lead, follow or move out of the way.

And, I promise the next posting will focus on good news ... and, there is some coming, so stay tuned.

LittleT Needs You!

As many of you know, Little T Broadband Services is working with its partners to develop new internet service in the Otto and Scaly Mountain communities. Unfortunately this is a long and expensive process. To make this a reality, we need to compile some information about our area to better understand the present need, and to help qualify for grant funding.

One way to help understand the need for high-speed service in our area is to find out who is interested in receiving it. We need to hear from members of our communities to develop a more accurate picture of who wants service, and in what types of service residents are interested.

The other way to understand the need in our area is to learn what type and quality of existing service residents and businesses are receiving today. To qualify for many types of federal and state grant funding, our area must be under-served, receiving less than 25Mbps DS / 3 MBps US, and in other cases receiving less than 10Mbps DS / 1 MBps US. Though some existing service information is available from the FCC, this is often inaccurate and indicates much higher rates of service than residents are actually receiving.

To help Little T better assess the community need, we are conducting our own survey. Though there have been regional surveys conducted in the past, much of this information was incomplete and not sufficient for our work. We encourage you to help us gather this information by responding. If you live in the Otto or Scaly Mountain area, please take the survey here.

Many thanks to all of our supporters.

How To Take This Survey

Little T Broadband Services
PO Box 376
Otto, NC 28763

LittleT Feburary Update

In September of 2019, the Macon County Board of County Commissioners voted 4:1 to provide a grant of $178,000 to Little T Broadband Services (LTBS… a 501(c)3 non-profit enterprise). Subsequent to that, the grant was essentially withdrawn by the County due to legal constraints. These constraints, prescribed in one of several NC statutes addressing grants, prevent local governments from actually funding any broadband-related grant to entities other than an established ISP. After several meetings between the county, LTBS, and on one occasion Balsam West, the County decided they can fund a grant to Balsam West. As Balsam West is an established ISP, the County believes they could fund a grant on their behalf for the same purposes as those included in the original LTBS request. While Balsam West was and remains amenable to this approach, the exact way in which it could be made to work is still being developed by LTBS and Balsam West.

LTBS will not be applying for the current round of USDA/RUS grants. Unfortunately the current requirements of this grant program foreclose any consideration of an application from LTBS or any other community driven initiative, as they are structured to favor established ISPs and telecommunication companies. We will revisit USDA/RUS when they announce another funding opportinity round later this year. In the meantime, we are pursuing other grant and funding opportunities.

We have also launched a “Fast-Start” initiative, with the objective of quickly bringing broadband to the Scaly and Otto Community Centers and Volunteer Fire Departments (VFDs). This  initiative would leverage existing HEMC fiber with new fiber extensions.  The plan remains in the formative stages, but we anticipate submitting another grant request to Macon County under the auspices of Balsam West and others within the next few weeks.

LittleT State of the Union 2020

It has been quite a while since our last post, and it is now the start of a new year and new decade. What has transpired with Little T Broadband Services (LTBS) in the past 3 1/2 months?

Over the past months, we have been engaged with Balsam West to solicit bids on the engineering work needed for the LTBS Phase 1 project in Tessentee and Scaly. We have now been through two rounds of RFP (Requests for Proposal) and discussion with two engineering companies, and have received final bids. In December we also began exploring some ways to accelerate development for portions of the LTBS Phase 1 project. This would focus on providing “hotspot” connectivity to the two community centers and fire stations. We are working up new cost numbers for this alternative proposal. More on this later.

In the end it is about the money... The LTBS project has never been difficult to solve on the technical side, the issue has always been trying to find ways to fund it. For-profit companies have no interest in financing our project on their own, as there simply are not enough residents and businesses in our area to pay for the investment. This means that grants and donations are our primary means of funding the project.

The LTBS grant team has been very active. One major source of funding for internet development is through the USDA RUS ReConnect program. During the month of November, members of the LTBS grant team attended the USDA ReConnect workshop in Raleigh, and participated in the Round 2 webinar that USDA held in December. The grant team has also been busy working on research and applications for a number of other grant and funding sources.

What about the money promised to LTBS from Macon County? The short answer is that to date, no money has been received from Macon County. When the county commissioners voted to provide grant money to LTBS back in September, this was done with the provision that the county could do so in line with current NC statutes as interpreted by the county’s attorney. Unfortunately, there have been a number of impediments that have kept the county from following through on their intent and releasing grant funds. Though we are still hopeful that these issues will be resolved, there is no certainty that any funding can or will be provided from Macon County.

Balsam West Selected as Primary Provider

After a several months of meetings, reviews, and discussion with 5 different prospective service providers, Little T Broadband is pleased to announce that we have selected Balsam West as the primary provider in response to LTBS-RFP-040119. Balsam West in conjunction with Haywood EMC, will work with LTBS to implement the Otto pilot network and then continue through Scaly Mountain. Both of the Otto and Scaly projects lie within the Haywood EMC service area.

Over the next several weeks the three companies will develop formal agreements and create a detailed network design for the Tessentee and Scaly areas. We anticipate this network to be implemented predominantly as fiber to the home or premises with some fixed wireless delivery where necessary.

Many thanks to all of the companies that provided their well thought-out proposals in response to LTBS-RFP-041019, and took their time to meet and discuss the project with us in detail.

A Provisional Win For LittleT

Executives of Little T Broadband Services presented their request for progress funding to the Macon County Commissioners meeting on Tuesday eveing, September 10th. After lengthy and informative discussion, a motion was passed by the Commissioners to provide the funding requested in two steps once the decision is vetted by the Macon County Attorney. We thank the Macon County Commissioners for their support of our efforts.

The meeting was very well attended. Many thanks to the members of the Otto and Scaly Mountain communities for their strong show of support for Little T Broadband.