By Penny Ray
Elon Musk to the rescue
A company founded by one of the richest men in the world has received federal grant awards to establish high-speed broadband service in rural homes and small businesses throughout North Carolina.
Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX, received $17.4 million in federal grant money to supply broadband service to 19,552 locations across the state.
“This is going to serve the worst internet service areas in North Carolina,” state Sen. Kevin Corbin (R-Franklin) said. “Rural counties are the real winners. So many times, rural communities get left out or shortchanged, and this is the opposite. Western North Carolina got more than anybody.”
Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of reducing space transportation costs to enable the colonization of Mars. The company later launched Starlink, a project to build an interconnected satellite network to deliver high-speed internet to consumers anywhere on the planet.
In 2018, the Federal Communications Commission approved SpaceX to launch 11,943 satellites, with the company aiming to deploy 4,425 satellites in orbit by 2024.
In applying for federal money, SpaceX committed to establishing broadband service in 3,229 locations in Cherokee County alone and received $2,864,363 in grant funds to assist in the effort. The exact amount the company must invest to match the grant funding is unclear.
The grant money is provided through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which is administered by the FCC and targets more than six million locations nationwide in census blocks that do not have voice and broadband service.
SpaceX received more than $885 million in federal funds to deliver voice and broadband service to 642,925 locations across 35 states. Although three service providers received more money than Musk’s company, SpaceX committed to serving more states than any other bidder.
Several other companies also received federal grant awards to establish broadband service in North Carolina. The FCC awarded more than $166 million to nine companies that will deliver voice and broadband service to 155,137 locations throughout the state.
The FCC awarded the following amounts to these western counties:
• $1.4 million for SpaceX to service 1,587 locations in Clay County.
• $3.3 million for SpaceX and Charter Communications to service 2,333 locations in Graham County.
• $7.6 million for SpaceX and Charter Communications to service 5,703 locations in Haywood County.
• $16.9 million for SpaceX and Charter Communications to service 11,160 locations in Jackson County.
• $9 million for Charter Communications to service 8,191 locations in Macon County.
• $5.2 million for SpaceX and Charter Communications to service 3,413 locations in Swain County.
The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will be distributed in two phases. Phase I, which distributes all of the aforementioned grant awards, targets locations that do not have voice and broadband service at all. Phase II will cover locations in census blocks that are partially served, as well as locations not funded in Phase I.
In Phase I, 180 bidders won $9.2 billion over 10 years to provide broadband to 5.2 million locations in 49 states and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
“The companies bid based on census clusters and where they could get the most people hooked up in the shortest amount of time,” Corbin said. “The second half of this will happen later this year.”
Corbin and fellow state lawmakers worked with former congressman — later White House chief of staff — Mark Meadows to ensure that North Carolina received its fair share of federal grant funds to expand broadband to rural areas. That effort finally came to fruition.
“There's no magic silver bullet; we have to pull resources from a lot of places,” Corbin said regarding rural broadband expansion. “We're in a tug of war and we're playing against lack of connectivity. The state has been pulling alone in this thing and now the feds have jumped in and they're helping a lot.
“We hope to get it to where cities and counties are involved. We need those three pieces of the puzzle all pulling in the same direction.”