The nation's newest community fiber network (FTTH) is launching in Salisbury, North Carolina, in the next month. Fibrant, a $29 million project financing by general obligation bonds, is slightly behind schedule but way ahead of the cable and DSL competition.
The City Council has approved the network's pricing in anticipation of hooking up customers in October. Some 70 people have been testing the network, but it will soon be available to everyone in the community. The basic tier of broadband speeds is 15Mbps and they have a second tier at 25 Mbps. The network is capable of much faster speeds but these are the tiers they will start with, making them the fastest basic tier available in North Carolina.
They are offering over 460 television channels, of which 100 are HD. HD quality over fiber-optics tends to be the highest quality viewing experience (though not everyone can tell, depending on their level of obsession with picture quality) but the first year or so of video service on Fibrant may suffer from occasional problems as they iron out the quirks of the new system. Reports of the broadband and voice services are tremendously positive.
They have made it clear that they cannot get into a price war with incumbents (Time Warner Cable and AT&T) and cannot beat the "promo" prices these companies offer for the first x months. However, Fibrant's rates are 7-10% lower than the regular rates of the incumbents and will come with local, superior, customer service.
Big companies like Time Warner Cable often claim they are at a disadvantage relative to these municipalities but the reality is that the massive scale of national cable and phone companies give them many more advantages to offer lower prices for their services (which tend to also be lower in quality).
“If you get deal you can’t refuse from someone else, just thank Fibrant for it because you wouldn’t have gotten it if we hadn’t been here,” Clark [Fibrant Marketing Director] said.
Fibrant aims for a 30% take rate (4400 subscribers) by the end of year 3 and a positive cash flow in year 4. Pricing and channels lineups are available at the end of this Salisbury Post article. Subscribing to the service has no installation fee as long as subscribers stay with the network for 12 months. If they stop service earlier, they will have to pay $360 -- such fees are necessary to ensure a the network does not go broke from the high costs of installs for subscribers that immediately cut service.
The network is going beyond the basic triple-play to offer some simple video games (Sudoku, for instance) where people can compete for the high score in the network. This is just one of the ways that Salisbury plans to use the network to build community… rather than seeing broadband as a way to surf around the world, we are increasingly seeing examples of how these community networks reinforce local bonds. Those building Fibrant seem to understand this better than others who have built publicly owned networks.
However, some in the community have been frustrated by the lack of information about network status over the past few months. People are excited about the network and want to sign up, but they have found little information about network progress. We previously praised Salisbury for starting a blog discussing the project but it was rarely updated. Ironically, the reason was that early on, few local people showed interest in the blog. Further, keeping a blog updated takes considerably more time than most expect, and time is a valuable commodity to those responsible for building a next-generation broadband network from scratch.
A lesson learned: blogs take more time to keep fresh than expected but some citizens really want to stay in the loop one way or another.
One reason for the citizen frustration is because Fibrant originally hoped to start hooking people by the end of the summer. Unfortunately, some technological hurdles delayed the project and some of the polls on which Fibrant must place fiber-optic lines cannot be used until AT&T does the required "make-ready" work. Unsurprisingly, they are dragging their feet - another ironic note as private companies regularly accuse local governments of being too slow when it comes to the right-of-way.
Michael Crowell, Broadband Services Director, clued me into a big annoyance they have had in building the network. I am always in search of anecdotes of the unexpected problems… one expects a fair number of bumps in the road for such a big project, but Crowell did not expect to spend months solving problems relating to the television remotes.
Yes, television remotes. As we have said before, just about every community we have talked to has noted they built a network for broadband but had to offer television services to make the business plan work. No one wants to get into television because it is a huge headache. In the case of Fibrant, they have been plagued by remotes for set-top boxes that, for one reason or another, did not live up to their high standard.
Such problems are annoyances that do not delay the project, but do constitute a time suck and can be incredibly frustrating.
As we have done many times, we will now remind communities that building these networks can be difficult and they should be prepared for unexpected complications from totally unexpected sources.
A press release from Clearfield offers more details about Fibrant. Fibrant is a fascinating network, not only because it was financed in the midst of the economic crash but also because the state legislature has given serious thought to outlawing community fiber networks.
Fibrant will initially offer a "triple play" of state-of-the-art voice, video and data services that will rival anything the big name service providers can offer, said Salisbury Director of Broadband Services Michael Crowell. "We'll be offering a better product that provides fiber all the way to the home," he said. "We'll have much more bandwidth than the others, and we'll be offering a superior level of customer service."
As an example, Crowell noted that Fibrant will provide four HD streams into the homes -- something that has not been available in this market previously. This technological advantage is especially attractive to the younger demographic. In fact, one of the primary goals of Fibrant is to attract and retain younger professionals.
But Fibrant seems to have larger ambitions than simply the triple play:
The first phase of Fibrant is expected to be completed in the 4th quarter of this year. Phase two of the project, which would add gaming, security and wireless options, is currently being discussed.
Salisbury also released short publication called "Straight Talk on Fiber" [pdf]. This is a good, short intro to people who are new to the idea. Quoting from it toward the end:
In addition, fiber optic technology can provide two-way transmission speeds of up to 100 megabits per second. That’s pretty amazing when you stop and think about it. That means no more waiting on images or information to appear. Also, optical fiber is extremely robust and sturdy and has the ability to deliver communications throughout the entire City without any interruptions. High bandwidth signals which we know equal faster communications for you and your business, can be delivered immediately and bring ever evolving video, internet, and voice services straight to you!