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Google Fiber testing Charlotte for fiber-optic network like Fibrant

SALISBURY — Google Fiber is considering building a high-speed broadband network in Charlotte that would run hundreds of miles of fiber optic cable and offer speeds up to 100 times faster than basic broadband.
Sound familiar?
The city of Salisbury did the same thing in 2009 when it built Fibrant, although Salisbury borrowed $33 million to construct its network. Fibrant includes 250 miles of cable and has the capability to provide speeds up to one gigabit per second, the same super-fast speed that Google Fiber touts.
“We have the infrastructure other cites desire,” said Mike Jury, general manager for Fibrant.
As cities clamor for Google Fiber, which is building data networks in three cities and testing nine metropolitan areas including Charlotte for the second wave, Salisbury’s Fibrant was up to 2,429 residential customers and 295 commercial subscribers as of January.
While Fibrant can provide and sell up to a gigabit per second, the city currently does not market the speed, Assistant City Manager John Sofley said.
But leaders are considering it.
Salisbury City Council has invited a representative from Chattanooga, a fiber-to-the-home community that has deployed gigabit service, to speak at the city’s strategic planning retreat in March about how Chattanooga marketed gig service and what results that city has achieved, Sofley said.
While Google Fiber had no specific comment about Fibrant, spokeswoman Jenna Wandres said municipal broadband networks in general prove the demand for high-speed Internet service.
“It’s clear that people are hungrier than ever for faster Internet, and as a result, cities across America are making speed and fiber a priority,” Wandres said. “We think this momentum is fantastic.”
Google Fiber would not compete with Fibrant for customers.
“As I’m sure folks in Salisbury remember, building a fiber network is a big project and often requires hundreds, if not thousands of miles of construction,” Wandres said. “That’s why we’re focused on working with Charlotte for now to determine whether we can bring Fiber within their city limits.”
Jury, who came to Fibrant from the private sector, said he could not comment on Google Fiber’s capabilities or make comparisons with Fibrant but said he is excited for Charlotte.
“If Google moves forward, Charlotteans will see increased competition and higher speeds,” he said. “This is good for the consumer.”
Jury did not weigh in on the gigabit option except to say that he is looking forward to understanding more about the opportunities at the City Council retreat.
Fibrant billed $386,979 to 2,724 total customers in January, including residential and business subscribers. The number of commercial customers has grown from 276 in August ($69,586 billed) to 295 in January ($80,566 billed).
Fibrant sells a triple play of Internet, cable TV and phone service to people who live in Salisbury. The most popular service is Internet, with 2,295 customers. Cable TV is next with 2,030 customers, and phone follows with 1,362.
The lowest residential speed Fibrant offers has been upgraded from 15×15 megabits per second to 20×20. One gigabit is 1,000 megabits.
While Google Fiber offers free basic residential broadband at a speed of 5 megabits per second with only a construction fee, Fibrant charges for residential service, competing with private providers like Time Warner Cable and AT&T. According to Fibrant’s website, bundled packages including all three services start at $97 a month and go up to $209 a month.
At the end of the 2013 fiscal year, the city owed $51.9 million on Fibrant debt, including $13.1 million in interest. As of January, the city had paid off $16.2 million in principal and $7.95 million in interest on Fibrant.
Fibrant owes the city’s water and sewer reserve fund about $7 million that it borrowed to cover operating expenses. The utility started breaking even last fall.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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