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Editorial: A tale of two Fibrants

When state and local elected officials gathered at Catawba College 16 months ago, the ensuing announcement would be one heralded as positioning the city for new economic growth.

Catawba College was to be a sort of guinea pig for this new announcement, which was also described as a tool for high-tech medical imaging companies, remote surgery and data centers.

Local officials asked former Gov. Pat McCrory to join the list of speakers at the announcement. He accepted. Former Salisbury Mayor Susan Kluttz, the secretary of cultural eesources at the time, also attended the event.

On that day in September 2015, the city of Salisbury announced that its municipal broadband network could provide 10 gigabit speeds.

Now, 16 months later, it seems that speed upgrade has yielded little, if any, results. The Salisbury City Council appears to be in the midst of having second thoughts about whether Fibrant might yield major economic benefits for the city. On Tuesday, the City Council agreed to start looking for groups to lease, manage or buy Fibrant. It’s the same Fibrant that Kluttz once said would prove to be a valuable and wise decision.

During the announcement about the 10 gigabit speeds, former Mayor Paul Woodson said he hoped the upgrade would be “the key to our future.”

That optimism about Fibrant sharply contrasts with current opinions by members of the City Council.

“They’re eating into this debt by operating it at this point,” said City Councilman David Post on Tuesday.

Post has been laser-focused on examining Fibrant’s finances, but there were others with a different tune, too.

“So, for what it’s worth, it gives us an opportunity to see what options are out there,” Councilman Brian Miller said in a statement that doesn’t exude confidence about the broadband system’s future.

While Fibrant may have seemed like a worthwhile endeavor before Salisbury installed fiber-optic lines across the city, it should now be evaluated based on the enormous financial burden it’s created without enough economic benefits that make the project worthwhile. Fibrant may have resulted in ancillary benefits, such as lower prices from private providers. Those benefits, however, are not enough to justify the $3 million in yearly debt service.

When former City Manager David Treme retired in 2011, Kluttz said Salisbury in 10 years would be praised as one of the few cities with the foresight to launch a public broadband system while cities still could. It’s not yet clear that simply launching a broadband system while it was possible is an accomplishment worth praising.

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