Customers of Ashland Fiber Network and its retail internet providers are getting an update that will double the currently-offered bandwidth with no extra fees by March 15, according to the city’s telecommunications manager.

The new offer is a part of an ongoing effort to keep AFN competitive and eventually grow the market share that has remained stagnant for almost a decade, AFN operations manager Don Kewley said.

“I’m hoping to change the image of AFN, to not carry the baggage from the past and to focus on the positive aspects of the services we can provide to the community,” Kewley told the Tidings Friday.

Kewley was hired by the city to “turn things around” in January 2017, when the network was in the throes of a consistent decline in customers since 2011.

“We can’t compete with Charter in price — we just can’t,” he said. “But we can improve our services and reliability. We can do things differently.”

In a presentation to the City Council on Feb. 20, Kewley said AFN will start offering customer services seven days a week, doubling currently offered bandwidth with no extra fees, conducting community surveys to better identify needs from the community, and evaluating its retail internet providers’ performance.

Kewley explained that after assessing the network’s capacity, he learned that the city has capacity to double its offer in bandwidth without adding additional cost or pushing the network’s infrastructure to its capacity. That means AFN can now offer bandwidth of maximum 220 Megabit per second to download and 26 Megabit per second to upload — “a service nobody else is offering,” Kewley said.

AFN is also going through an internal restructuring to provide more training and have a more personal approach when it comes to customer service.

“My philosophy is to not lose a customer,” Kewley said, adding that if an account is on the verge of disconnect due to lack of payment, he would call the account holder to attempt to resolve the issue.

AFN, started in 1997 to allow Ashland to have its own telecommunications utility, has struggled to thrive since the beginning, having to compete with other providers who offer the same service at a lower price tag.

With the construction costs for the infrastructure went over budget and the business was operating at a loss, the city went into a $15.5 million debt in 2004. Options to sell or shut down the network would end up costing the city more than continuing operations, according to a report in 2010.

AFN has had an influx of market share between 25 and 35 percent over the years, and it hasn’t been able to compete with Charter at 55 percent share of market, Kewley said.

In June 2011, AFN had 4,466 customers, but saw that number declined to 3,966 customers by June 2016. The dip, Kewley said, was due to a lack of marketing, internal management structure and a clear vision for the future. It also prompted an infrastructure upgrade in 2014.

Now, with over 125 miles of hybrid fiber-coaxial network, the city is still paying the debt — which is somewhat under $9 million as of this year — until 2024. AFN has just gotten to the break even operational point, where the money it takes in covers the money it spends to keep the system going, and its market share is slowly growing back.

Kewley said he has goals to grow the network 4 to 6 percent every year, but added that changes won’t come easy. Councilor Dennis Slattery also noted at the February meeting that AFN is not expanding its number in customers.

“I agree that we are not growing fast enough,” he said, referring to a slight but consistent uptick in customers in 2017 and 2018. “We had to fix internally first — training people, restructuring the organization — … then we change the way we do things to better market ourselves.”

AFN is taking small steps to regain public trust and change the perspective of the business.

According to Kewley’s report, AFN has 70 cases of disconnect due to reliability issue in 2012. That number dropped to 11 cases last year. It also established a new program designated for low income families and seniors.

AFN will also continue to support net neutrality, as FCC voted in December to repeal the principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, Kewley said.

Kewley also presented new opportunities to bring in additional revenues by providing internet services to neighboring municipalities through intergovernmental contracts. Currently AFN is providing internet to Medford City Hall, bringing in roughly $600 a month, Kewley said.

“There wouldn’t be any additional costs to Ashland,” he said. “The customers will have to pay us to build out and pay us monthly revenue.”

Councilor Stefani Seffinger called Kewley “passionate” and “creative” after his presentation at the meeting.

“In a way, every time we get a new customer, we reduce our debt a bit,” she said. “I’m interested to see where this goes.”

Kewley said he believes AFN could succeed in Ashland as a business model, but it would take time and efforts from the whole city.

“We are budgetary constrained, so we will keep being creative on how to stay competitive,” Kewley said. “And to be successful, we will need the collaboration and help from our partnerships.”

 — Reach reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or Follow her on twitter @nguyenntrann.