Fired up about Fibrant
If Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell can light a fire under city employees and officials to successfully market Fibrant, she’ll be doing the citizens of Salisbury a great service.
In a best-case scenario, Salisbury would become widely known as a “gig city” and attract development. Short of that, city taxpayers would be thrilled with making Fibrant profitable enough to pay its debts, including $7 million borrowed from the city’s water-sewer fund.
Municipal broadband is still in its infancy and growing despite pressure from telecom giants like Time Warner and AT&T. Merely offering the service is not enough. The city has to aggressively market Fibrant and raise Salisbury’s profile as a forward-looking city to make this investment pay off. As Blackwell said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Salisbury is in a race, the gun has fired and “we must run.”
Blackwell sounded the alarm after attending a GIGTANK pitch day in Chattanooga, Tenn., home to what some consider one of the most successful municipal broadband networks in the country. At the event, entrepreneurs vying for investors pitched products and services that could benefit from Chattanooga’s one-gigabit-per-second broadband service. The buzz of excitement and potential clearly impressed Blackwell.
Fibrant may be near the tipping point of taking off, though detractors eagerly predict its doom. It’s the same in many communities that have launched such services. Telecom interests push hard to quash these initiatives through legislation and price competition. After Chattanooga and Wilson launched successful networks, Tennessee and North Carolina (and 18 other states) passed laws severely restricting municipal broadband. And telecom companies remain plugged in to the legislative process. Time Warner’s political action committee, for example, has given money to the campaigns of state Rep. Harry Warren and Sen. Andrew Brock.
Meanwhile, Wilson and Chattanooga have petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to overturn the laws the telecoms helped write. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler committed in the spring to look closely at state laws that restrict government-run broadband networks and consider overturning them.
The Wilson system, Greenlight, started serving customers in 2008 and has close to 7,000 customers. Fibrant, by comparison, started signing up clients in November 2010 and recently got its 3,000th customer. Now that Fibrant offers one gig service, it has a powerful story to tell. The city should tell that story far and wide.