Fibrant wants to switch to more reliable equipment

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 5, 2013

SALISBURY — Fibrant wants to sell equipment that cost the city more than $1 million and replace it with a different brand that General Manager Mike Jury says is more reliable.
Fibrant’s requested budget for the coming year, which starts July 1, includes a $788,000 line item for “Calix.” Jury confirmed Tuesday that he plans to ask City Council for the go-ahead to remove Fibrant’s Zhone access gear and ONT boxes and replace them with equipment from Calix, a competitor.
The city’s new high-speed broadband utility, Fibrant competes with private companies like Time Warner Cable to sell Internet, cable TV and phone services to Salisbury residents.
The access gear transmits video, Internet and phone signals from Fibrant’s technical center on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue to homes and businesses. Jury said Zhone’s equipment has been unreliable since Fibrant went live in December 2010 and has failed in every outage the network has experienced.
Fibrant had been plagued by several lengthy outages but hasn’t gone down for an extended period recently. Jury said he updated Zhone software recently for more stability for customers.
Jury said he also wants to replace the Zhone optical network terminals, or ONT, boxes on customers’ homes and businesses with Calix equipment.
Zhone won the Fibrant contract in 2009 with a low bid of $2 million for equipment, engineering and construction of a passive optical network, or GPON, that brings fiber-optic cabling and signals to 5,000 homes and businesses. Zhone’s bid was nearly $300,000 lower than the next lowest bid.
As of December, Zhone had billed the city $1.2 million, including $186,929 for access gear and about $1 million for other equipment including ONT boxes.
Under the contract, Zhone is also responsible for installation of access gear and providing maintenance, including software upgrades for five years. 
“We’ve had a challenging situation with Zhone and budgeted the money to go ahead and replace the Zhone gear with Calix gear,” Jury said.
If approved by City Council, Jury said he will sell the Zhone equipment to other telecommunication systems. He said the equipment is not faulty or defective but is not appropriate for a system like Fibrant that offers a triple play of services — video, Internet and phone.
The city cannot recoup the full cost, Jury said, but he hopes to recover about 70 percent. He said he has a list of interested buyers, mostly phone companies. Fibrant has had the most trouble with Zhone equipment related to video, Jury said.
Zhone will not refund any money to the city, Jury said.
The $788,000 in the proposed Fibrant budget for Calix equipment reflects the sale of the Zhone gear. The Calix purchase is part of $1.4 million in capital outlay proposed for Fibrant in 2013-2014.
Jury, who said Fibrant has been adding an average of 30 customers a week for several months, said the utility can cover the cost of the capital improvements without an internal loan from any other city fund. Fibrant has borrowed about $7 million in the past three years from the city’s water-sewer capital reserve fund.
Switching from Zhone to Calix will not require an extended outage and will take place over about 12 months, Jury said.
The plan calls for both systems to be up and running, side by side, in Fibrant’s technical center. New customers will brought into the network on Calix equipment, and existing customers will be switched from Zhone to Calix over time, Jury said.
Crews will switch out ONT boxes on houses and businesses as they have time. The boxes are exterior, so no one has to be home during the switch, Jury said.
“We want to do it this way because it will have the least impact on customers,” he said.
Jury said he took City Manager Doug Paris and some City Council members to view Calix equipment in use in other cities, including some cities that replaced Zhone gear with Calix. Jury said he couldn’t recall all the cities they visited, and Paris did not respond to questions from the Post about the field trip.
In December, after the city blamed Zhone equipment for several outages, the company defended its equipment as top-of-the-line and told the Post that Fibrant had encountered more difficulties than most built-from-scratch fiber optic networks.
“It’s been a situation where we have all been challenged with more troubles than we normally see,” Brian Caskey, chief marketing officer for Zhone, said.
Zhone and other vendors who sold equipment to Fibrant worked with city staff to diagnose and solve problems that may have caused the network’s instability.
At the time, Caskey said Zhone had gone above and beyond its contract to help Fibrant be successful.
Because of access gear’s interface with the network, the equipment is always involved in an outage, Mike Fisher, Zhone’s vice president of sales for North America, told the Post in December. That doesn’t mean the gear actually caused the outage, he said.
Jury disagreed with Zhone’s assessment that Fibrant has had more problems than other start-up networks.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.