Salisbury, North Carolina – population just shy of 34,000 – can now lay claim to the title of “city with the fastest Internet in the U.S.” It’s not operated by Google, Verizon, or Time Warner Cable. Instead, it’s a homegrown fiber optic network. WFAE’s Ben Bradford says, when city officials launched it, the only title they were seeking was “employed.”
Salisbury’s one of those classic American towns with a prototypical main street. Old buildings, mom-and-pop shops, storefront windows, a church bell gongs out the time.
But at the very end of the historic section, there’s a large office building with Integro Technologies inside.
Company IT head Pat Lafferriere says it requires fast Internet. Integro buys from the city of Salisbury, which started its own provider a few years ago. Lafferriere says it’s fast.
"We’ve got people that download 100s of gigabytes a day, so without that speed, it would drive everybody nuts."
Fibrant, as it’s called, offers download speeds of one gigabit-per-second. That’s about 20-times faster than Time Warner Cable’s fastest offering in Charlotte. And the same speed as Google’s much-ballyhooed fiber optic network operating in Kansas City, and under construction in Charlotte and Raleigh. But as of yesterday, Salisbury now offers an even faster speed—ten gigabits—the fastest Internet, the city claims, available to all residents in any city.
That wasn’t the original plan, says Mayor Paul Woodson. He says, ten years ago, the city council looked to attract companies like Integro, not break any records.
"All we were trying to do was differentiate ourselves from other cities. We lost our mills, we lost our furniture factories. We decided we need to do something to replace the manufacturing the whole country was losing, not just Salisbury, the whole country, so that’s how we got started."
The council began to explore the idea of a faster, fiber optic data network to lure new technology jobs. Assistant city manager John Sofley says the city first approached the cable companies that already offered Internet.
Cable traditionally uses copper wire to send electrical signals. Fiber optics embed the data in light, which can be much faster, but requires a major overhaul, says Christopher Mitchell, who tracks community-owned broadband.
"The main thing is that the existing cable and telephone companies don’t want to invest in the fiber network. Fundamentally you have to take these fiber optic cables and connect everyone’s house with them."
So, Salisbury became one of the few U.S. cities to commission its own, using $33 million in bonds.
Fibrant began operating in 2010 first at lower speeds, and then offering 1-gigabit last year for about $100 a month to interested residents, so far only a handful. As city officials tell it, they weren’t looking to go faster. But then, in December, the city hired Kent Winrich. He’d been working on fiber networks that stretched across Europe. Wintrich thought Fibrant could go much faster than one-gigabit, or technically even ten.
The problem is getting the hardware on each end of the cable to match those speeds. Winrich says the city was already going to replace some routers. He saw an opportunity to upgrade.
"We changed out our router and realized we could actually bump this up, and be the first city in the world to do it. And we were just scratching our heads going, ‘really, we’re going to be the first ones?’ And we kept checking with everyone we knew, and they said ‘we don’t know of anybody.’ So, we just jumped all over it and it was really very easy to do. Surprisingly easy to do."
The cost will vary for businesses, but in the range of $400 per month, Wintrich says.
Catawba College is the first user, with one connection and more planned. Governor Pat McCrory returned to his alma mater to announce the network.
"It will help us in recruiting new jobs, for North Carolina, for this entire region," Gov. McCrory said, touting Fibrant's economic potential.
Possibly. But Mayor Woodson admits the fast network has been slow to attract customers. He says it has about 3,300 businesses and residents right now, short of the city’s goal of 4,500.
"Right now we got some small companies coming in. Some engineering skill companies. They’re bringing in 15, 20, 25 high-paid people. But we still need the bigger jobs, we still need to pull people in where the big plants are coming in," explained Woodson.
Now that it has arguably the fastest network in the country, the question is if Fibrant can achieve its original goal.