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Utah Provider-Backed Front Group Trying to Kill UTOPIA Municipal Broadband… Again

The Free UTOPIA website reports that a provider-backed front group is once again trying to pack meetings with their members to oppose UTOPIA – Utah’s municipal broadband network.

Several UTOPIA member cities are gearing up to start taking votes on the new Utah Infrastructure Agency designed to help fund new construction of the network. The Utah Taxpayers Association is trying to get people to show up at these meetings to protest the UIA and try and kill it. In their effort to do so, they continue to distort, twist, and outright lie in their efforts to rile people up.

First off, the UIA bonds are not an unconditional loan. They are funds that will be secured by payments from subscribers. If there aren’t enough subscribers to secure repayment, the money doesn’t get touched. You would think that such an arrangement would be acceptable to an organization that purports to represent taxpayers as it clearly shifts the burden from the taxpayers as a whole to the subscribers. Attempting to characterize the UIA as a big grab-bag is a big lie.

UTA claims UTOPIA is currently running a $20 million deficit, but Free UTOPIA points out part of that “deficit” may include the original seed money required to construct the network, which came in the form of bonds.  Like any start-up venture, UTOPIA’s initial infrastructure costs create operating losses until those costs are paid back.  A financial feasibility study prepared by Design Nine and released last week projects UTOPIA could report positive net income by 2018, with revenue increasing dramatically going forward.

UTA receives financial support from both Comcast and Qwest.

As fiber advocates have noted, start-up costs and the time it takes to pay them off are one reason why so few commercial providers want to invest in fiber.  Commercial providers often demand a return on investment within five years, while many municipal projects consider fiber a longer-term investment that can pay additional dividends for communities that may not always appear on a balance sheet.  Dividends like high technology start-ups, better paying jobs, better health care and education, and eventually additional revenue for the community that stays in the community.

The UTA has repeatedly claimed the UTOPIA project is veiled in secrecy, yet the project’s feasibility study is published on UTA’s own website.  What is secret is exactly how much money Comcast and Qwest pay UTA and its president Howard Stephenson.  Neither company will disclose exactly how much they have spent on UTA beyond contributions directed to Stephenson himself, documented here.

Provider-backed front groups like UTA routinely misinform their members about the benefits of municipal broadband, often to the point of demagoguery not supported by the facts.  Free UTOPIA reports broadband evangelism can make dramatic inroads among opponents of such public works projects:

The Utah “Taxpayers” Association thought it would get an upper hand with a BBQ in Orem just before the city council voted on a new construction bond. Unfortunately for them, the plan backfired when UTOPIA made a surprise appearance at the event with their “mobile command center” and started actually talking directly with the meeting attendees, many of whom had no opinion of UTOPIA yet and came to get more information. According to my sources, about half of the 250 or so attendees ended up registering their interest in UTOPIA services, a major coup for the network that upstaged their most vocal opponent.

Apparently what convinced a lot of the undecideds was the UTA’s refusal to disclose who pays their bills. That lack of transparency translated directly into looking like they have something to hide (hint: it’s Qwest and Comcast dollars) and left many looking at their fantastic claims skeptically. I’d like to say that there were some talking points to address, but an eyewitness account called it so much kool-aid drinking, a series of incomprehensible rants filled with insinuation, innuendo, insults, and no concrete addressable facts. In contrast, UTOPIA discussed their new business plan with individual residents and offered demonstrations of how well the service can work. Truth has power and it wasn’t on the UTA’s side.

Judging from comments left on UTOPIA’s website, the most controversy seems to be why it takes so long to extend service to more neighborhoods:

“Please finish laying fiber in Orem! We live virtually a quarter mile from the cutoff. We are stuck with Comcast’s horrible routing, and inconsistent speeds, Qwest’s DSL which doesn’t work due to damaged lines they are unwilling to repair, or wireless that never works. Please save us. I have been waiting for years.”

Utah fiber advocates are strongly encouraged by Free UTOPIA to repeat earlier successes and attend upcoming town meetings to present a more informed view about the benefits of fiber networks.

Centerville meets tonight (October 19) at 7PM, Orem is October 26 at 6PM, and Payson is October 27 at 6PM.

All meetings are at the city halls of each respective community.

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