Ford, Sides voice Fibrant concerns

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 28, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — Although two Rowan County commissioners helped secure an expanded service area for Fibrant, both say they have reservations about Salisbury’s broadband network.
Carl Ford and Jim Sides said they wanted to guarantee that elected officials representing towns and schools would vote before Salisbury extends Fibrant into Rowan County.
“People need to have a voice,” Sides said. “It’s too bad the people of Salisbury didn’t have one.”
The turf war over Fibrant heated up this week while lawmakers considered House Bill 129, which sponsors say will protect taxpayers by restricting future city-owned broadband systems. Fibrant is exempt from restrictions in the bill.
Ford, vice chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, suggested amending the bill to require a vote of town aldermen, county commissioners or school board members before Salisbury offers Fibrant outside the city limits.
“They were dragging in the rest of the county, and it looked like it was going to happen anyway,” Ford said. “I thought, let’s make it more palatable for people.”
After N.C. Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, limited Fibrant’s service area to four towns, Salisbury officials called mayors in six other communities including Kannapolis and Concord.
All wrote to N.C. Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Rowan and Davie, asking him to protect their ability to buy high-speed Internet and other telecommunications services from Salisbury.
Ford and Sides said they heard from aldermen in those towns who were upset because mayors acted without resolutions passed by their board.
“Some just felt left out,” Ford said. “They were going to get bombarded by their citizens who don’t want Fibrant, and they hadn’t even discussed it.”
Requiring a vote has satisfied many critics, Ford said.
People felt Fibrant was being forced on them, he said.
“That may not have been the reality, but that was the perception,” Ford said.
Even county commissioners weren’t sure if the city could sell Fibrant to Rowan County’s information technology department without their blessing, he said.
“Today, everybody I’ve heard from is fine and happy,” Ford said Thursday. “Citizens who were adamantly opposed to Fibrant, period, now feel like their voice will be heard.”
Salisbury officials said they would have sought approval from towns, the school board and county commissioners before extending fiber optic lines.
Ford and Sides said that needed to be in writing.
Pursuing an expanded service area for Fibrant shows the city is concerned about its ability to pay back $35.86 million in bonds sold in 2008, including $33.5 million to finance Fibrant, Sides said.
“It’s a desperation move on their part,” he said.
The city has no current plan to extend Fibrant and may never venture outside the city limits, Mayor Susan Kluttz said.
Kluttz said she wanted to secure the option, particularly to serve public schools outside the city. Two private schools have Fibrant, and every public school should have the option of using fiber-optic broadband, she said.
Ford and Sides’ suggestion evolved after Ford called Kluttz to apologize for comments he made on WSTP radio Wednesday morning.
While he may have gone over the line, Ford said he stands by his assertion that from a public relations standpoint, “Fibrant is a mess.”
Ford said he asked Sides’ opinion about allowing the sale of Fibrant in the county, contingent upon approval from elected officials.
Sides recently requested Fibrant’s financial documents from the city, so Ford said he considered Sides well-versed on the subject.
“I’m not opposed to them going anywhere in the county, as long as they’re not going take money from water-sewer to pay for a Fibrant extension,” Sides said.
Sides said he requested the documents to determine if the city would use profits from the Salisbury-Rowan Utilities for Fibrant.
City officials have repeatedly said they will use only proceeds from Fibrant to pay for the network. Kluttz personally assured Sides the city won’t use money from water-sewer to pay for Fibrant, he said.
Sides criticized the city’s business model, which included borrowing more than $3 million to pay interest on the debt while the fiber-optic network starts up. Including interest, the city will pay more than $60 million over 20 years.
The city does not have current revenue or subscriber projections for Fibrant and said original projections are obsolete because the network launched later than planned.
“That’s not proper,” Sides said.
Fibrant, which began billing in December 2010 and has about 770 subscribers, needs about 4,000 customers and a third of the market share to turn a profit.
Fibrant has put the city “in a real precarious position,” Sides said.
He said he endorsed the amendment allowing Salisbury to sell Fibrant outside the city limits to show he’s not opposed to the success of the network.
Without Ford and Sides, Salisbury likely would be restricted to selling Fibrant within the city limits, said Brock, who proposed the amendment Wednesday to the Senate Finance Committee.
The committee was going to reject any expansion of Fibrant outside the city, Brock said.
But Ford and Sides’ suggestion to require a vote by elected officials went over well. N.C. Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, a co-sponsor for House Bill 129, had no objection.
Similar attempts to secure expanded service areas and exemptions by other cities failed. Wilson, N.C., which operates a similar fiber-to-the-home network called Greenlight, did secure Wilson County as a service area, although N.C. Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, had asked for six counties.
“Salisbury did well today,” Brock said Wednesday.
House Bill 129 was debated on the Senate floor Thursday, then withdrawn from the calendar and rescheduled for Monday.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.