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Editorial: Forward on Fibrant

The list of citizens appointed to advise the city on the future of Fibrant looks like a corporate board of directors. It includes Dyke Messinger, head of Power Curbers; Greg Alcorn, CEO of Global Contact Services; Dari Caldwell, president of Novant Health Rowan Medical Center; Jimmy Jenkins, president of Livingstone College; and six other individuals with equally impressive credentials. These are leaders  with proven business acumen, something Fibrant has needed from Day One.

Now it’s Day 2,340-plus for Fibrant, after launching in November 2010. While opportunities have been missed, the city is wisely calling on this group not to look back but to find the best way forward.

Consider it a rescue mission. The city is spending more than $3 million annually to support Fibrant. Now officials are reviewing proposals from those who want to buy, lease or manage the multi-million-dollar fiber optic network. The advice of these professionals    leaders with experience at steering an organization through the waters of competition and regulation — is priceless.

Still, Fibrant is a publicly owned enterprise with 33,000-plus citizen-stakeholders. That has been both its advantage and its handicap. Ten years ago, it was clear that no one else was going to bring high-speed broadband to Salisbury any time soon. But every financial decision concerning Fibrant and its rates required a public vote by Council, and every action was weighed down by a methodical bureaucracy with little entrepreneurial instinct.

As the city moves toward privatizing Fibrant, the transparency of the transaction is important. City taxpayers have footed most of the Fibrant bill so far, and they have a right to know what’s going on. That is why the Post has pushed for information about those who expressed interest in the utility and the proposals under consideration. The business people reviewing the offers are generously lending their expertise, but there’s a danger that the process will appear to be run by the elite. The final decision rests with the elected members of City Council. Before that happens, the public needs a direct voice in the process, at least a public hearing.   

So, was Fibrant a mistake? The mistake was in thinking profitability would come swiftly or easily. Government ventures that cross over the business line nearly always suffer disappointment. As with the county’s minor-league baseball stadium and industrial park, governments go in with inflated projections and Pollyanna time lines. The private-public N.C. Research Campus was projected to employ more than 5,000 people by 2013; it had 1,300.

Recessions happen. Fans are fickle. Technology moves at supernova speeds. The good news is that the people of Salisbury have access to broadband speeds that are the envy of much bigger cities. We have paid a price. Let’s move forward.

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