Elizabeth Cook: Finally, frank talk about Fibrant

Published 12:27 pm Saturday, August 6, 2016

Do you remember what Salisbury called Fibrant before it had a name?

“Fiber to the home” was the term used back in 2006 when City Council started talking about establishing a network for Salisbury. The emphasis on “home” may explain why extending service to residences was Fibrant’s first priority, a decision that some consider foolish, in hindsight.

Full disclosure: My husband and I have been Fibrant customers since March 2015. The Salisbury Post also uses Fibrant. We have been pleased with the service.

Hindsight is one way to analyze the way the city dove into this costly undertaking. But what the city and Fibrant need now is foresight — a road map, a plan, vision. To quote Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up some place else.”

Let’s edit that. If you don’t know where you’re going — and how you plan to get there — you’ll end up some place else. Current council members didn’t vote for Fibrant, but they ran for office knowing they would be responsible for steering the city out from under the Fibrant debt. Where are they taking us?

David Post, elected last November to City Council, is a big advocate of executing a business plan for Fibrant.

No one but a numbers person enjoys conducting a post mortem on figures that didn’t add up the way people expected. Post is such a person — an accountant, attorney and entrepreneur — and infinitely curious. He has analyzed the figures, taken a look forward and proposed a plan. So far, he says, fellow council members have not been receptive.

So Post has taken his show on the road, showing members of the Salisbury Rotary Club a PowerPoint last week that outlined Fibrant’s promises, pitfalls and possibilities.

At one point in the utility’s operation, he said, the city intermingled the network’s expenses with other departments. As a result, extracting Fibrant’s numbers was like trying to remove strawberries from a smoothie where they’ve been blended with other fruits and vegetables. Whirring all that stuff together made it appear Fibrant was breaking even.

“Expenses hidden. No one questioned!” one of Post’s slides said. According to him, a true accounting of the utility’s expenses — something new City Manager Lane Bailey wanted — shows that it runs a deficit of about $3 million a year, a gap the city covers with money from the general fund.

One of the promises made about fiber-to-the-home at the outset was that it would not use taxpayers’ money. That turned out to be as reliable as “If you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan,” or “Read my lips: no new taxes” — a statement made in good faith but impossible to fulfill.

City officials relied on consultants’ overly optimistic projections when weighing whether to get into the broadband business. 

Council visited Wilson to see its fiber operation, then held a public hearing. The Post published a lengthy story in advance to make readers aware of the meeting.

Then the big day came. Here’s how Mark Wineka reported on the hearing:

Put Bryan Wymbs under the “for it’’ column.

Wymbs, a Mitchell Avenue resident, spoke strongly Tuesday for the city of Salisbury’s plans to get into the fiber-optic cable business. …

Wymbs was the lone speaker at a public hearing Salisbury City Council held Tuesday on the $30 million venture that the city and its consultants have been studying for more than two years.

The lone speaker.

Council voted in the spring of 2008 to undertake the project, and the network launched in November 2010. Unfortunately, the recession intervened, stunting Salisbury’s growth as well as Fibrant’s.

In 2008, Salisbury had 13,365 households, and consultants predicted it would have nearly 17,000 by 2016, according to Post. That would be an increase of about 26 percent. Talk about optimistic. Instead, the city reportedly has grown to 14,200 households, increasing about 6 percent.

To cut to the chase, Post outlined these options:

• Keep doing what we’re doing.

• Sell Fibrant outright, knowing that its value will be based on annual cash flow, not investment.

• Partner with a private sector investor to run it.

• Partner with local private sector managers.

Good things are happening. Fibrant is reliable and fast. The city may refinance the Fibrant debt at a savings of $400,000 a year. Lane Bailey is committed to being transparent about Fibrant finances. And Salisbury citizens are paying attention. 

“This is important because Fibrant is fixable,” Post said in an email Friday. “… I can’t tell you what Fibrant will look like in one year, but I can tell you what it will look like in 3-5 years — it will be operated by a private sector enterprise and will not be losing money.”

Sounds like a plan.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.