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Fibrant subscribers a month and a half behind projections

By Emily Ford
eford@salisburypost.com
SALISBURY — Fibrant has fallen slightly behind projections for subscribers, but officials expect business to pick up this fall.
Ten months after launch, Fibrant had billed 1,176 customers $168,057 as of Aug. 20. Since then, 18 customers have been connected and 61 more await service, for a total of 1,255 customers, said John Sofley, assistant city manager.
Comparing the current customer count to projections in the business model, the city is about one and a half months behind, Sofley said.
“This is based on the assumption that an equal number of customers are added every month,” he said in an email to interim City Manager Doug Paris. “Based on our experience and that of our sales staff, sign ups can vary significantly based on publicity and time of year, with summer being one of those slower times.”
As summer wanes, subscriptions will increase, Sofley said.
The fiber-optic broadband utility competes with private companies like Time Warner Cable and AT&T to provide Internet, cable TV and phone services.
Fibrant should meet projected customer counts by June 30, 2012, Sofley said.
According to the business model, roughly 2,700 homes and 200 businesses should have Fibrant in 2012.
Fibrant has a 96 percent retention rate, Paris said. Most disconnections have been caused by people moving or not paying for service, he said.
The city’s broadband services director, Mike Crowell, took early retirement last week, and officials are developing a plan to find his replacement. Paris named Jim Behmer, director for Salisbury-Rowan Utilities, as acting Fibrant chief.
It’s not clear yet whether Paris or his successor will make the hire, a key position as the Fibrant enters a new phase of sales and marketing.
Fibrant has moved from the planning and construction stage through the testing phase, Paris said. Now fully operational, the city expects the broadband service to become self-sustaining over a four-year period, he said.
In the search for a new director, “the ideal candidate would have a strong business focus and skills in sales, marketing and customer service,” Paris said in an email to the Post. “Ideally, we would want someone who has industry experience in these areas.”
Because he’s serving in an interim position, Paris said he will defer to Salisbury City Council regarding the timing of the new hire. The council may prefer the next permanent city manager to make that decision, Paris said.
“We have an excellent group of broadband staff and a proven utility manager for the interim in Jim Behmer,” Paris said. “This gives us confidence moving forward during the transition.”
Behmer said he offered to fill in when Crowell left.
“Fibrant and Salisbury-Rowan Utilities have very similar missions — to offer the best customer service possible to our customers,” he said.
While he’s not familiar with all the broadband technology yet, Behmer said he was a beta tester for Fibrant, has the service now and believes in the product. The water-sewer and Fibrant billing systems are the same, and employees in both departments are excellent, he said.
As acting director, Behmer said he will focus on operations and keeping things running smoothly. He’s spent most of the week in meetings, learning more about Fibrant. “I’m just trying to get my feet wet and working with the capable staff they have,” he said.
As Fibrant begins to focus on sales and marketing, Behmer said the utility will work to increase the customer base and provide excellent service. Major decisions will be made by a team including Paris and Sofley, with direction from City Council, Behmer said.
“Whatever recommendations I have would go through Doug, and then it’s up to him and how City Council wants us to move forward,” he said.
Behmer said one of Fibrant’s greatest advantages over competitors is local customer service. Questions about technical support, billing and other matters are answered in Salisbury, not another city or country, he said.
“When you outsource that, you lose your dialogue with the community,” Behmer said. “This is a community function.”
The city is also retooling the customer service manager position to include sales management, Paris said. The position is currently filled by an interim staff person as well.
“We feel that this is a move in the right direction and will be a key role moving forward,” Paris said.

Bill Date    Customers    Video    Count Phone Count Internet Count Bill Total
 
12/1/10    134     103    115    130    $21,879.11
1/1/11    179    164    134    170    $31,483.06
2/1/11    295    261    215    269    $51,156.20
3/1/11    459    397    338    417    $80,948.66
4/1/11    636    540    456    578    $104,028.48
5/1/11    769    638    540    698    $116,100.92
6/1/11    859    717    591    775    $123,782.76
7/1/11    960    793    650    864    $139,654.98
8/1/11    1,059    856    705    948    $148,886.97
9/1/11    1,176    965    773    1033    $168,057.31

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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