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How Lobbyists in Utah Put Taxpayer Dollars at Risk to Protect Cable Monopolies

Facing the threat of municipal broadband networks disrupting their cable and telephone monpolies, big telecom lobbyists wrote a law to restrict municipal networks under the guise of protecting taxpayers. Here's the irony: the law put taxpayers at much greater risk even while restricting their choice of Internet and cable providers.

Before Business Week became Bloomberg Business, Brendan Greely and Alison Fitzgerald published a remarkable story entitled, "Pssst ... Wanna Buy a Law?" It offers chapter and verse on the role of cable and telephone incumbents using the American Legislative and Exchange Council (ALEC) to push Internet anti-competition restrictions in many states.

We have been reflecting on these laws that discourage or bar municipal broadband networks while drafting a brief for the 6th Circuit regarding the FCC decision to strike down monopoly-protection statutes in North Carolina and Tennessee. We realized that the Utah law isn't just anti-competitive, it dramatically increased the risk to taxpayers from building a municipal network in the state.

The Debt-Financed Wholesale-Only Model

Industry lobbyists convinced Utah legislators to restrict local authority over municipal networks to "protect" taxpayers and that argument is still frequently used today by groups opposing local Internet choice. The law does not actually revoke local authority to invest in networks, it monkeys around with how local governments can finance the networks and requires that municipalities use the wholesale-only model rather than offering services directly.

However, the debt-financed citywide wholesale-only model has proven to be the riskiest approach of municipal networks. Building a municipal fiber network where the city can ensure a high level of service is hard and can be a challenge to make work financially. Trying to do that while having less control over quality of service and splitting revenues with 3rd parties is much harder. This is why we recommend either incremental efforts or subsidizing the upfront capital costs for those who want to use the wholesale-only model (which we continue to believe has tremendous potential).

Spanish Fork vs Provo

The Utah law, while purporting to be about protecting taxpayers, puts them at greater risk. Consider two Utah municipal networks: Spanish Fork Community Network and iProvo. Both were studying municipal broadband at the same time with the same consultant. Spanish Fork moved quickly to build its network and was grandfathered into the 2001 Utah law designed to discourage municipal networks. Provo, being larger and needing to inform the public and get feedback before embarking on the project lost its opportunity to use the retail model because the state revoked its authority to do anything but wholesale-only.

We checked in with Kevin Garlick, Provo City Energy Director from 1997-2013, about this time period and he shared interesting details, including this:

As a successful and reliable municipal electric utility, we wanted to leverage our customer relationship by offering telecom services. The community and municipal council supported that. We wanted and planned to use the same retail model that Spanish Fork used. However, the state law essentially forced us to the adopt the more risky wholesale-only model that led to our financial problems.

Thanks for the Protection, Jerks!

The results from Spanish Fork, where the taxpayers were not "protected" by the laws drafted by cable and telephone lobbyists, the city has paid off all of its debt, regularly reinvested net income into local budgets, and is on its way to gigabit fiber. More details on Spanish Fork here.

Provo, saddled with the state restrictions that forced a riskier business model on it, was not financially sustainable. The network generated some benefits but the costs were too great and it eventually became Google Fiber. Many envy the network they now have but the intervening years certainly were part of the plan to improving Internet access.

Since the 2001 law to protect taxpayers from having a real choice in Internet providers, the only two municipal networks (iProvo and UTOPIA) that have been built have encountered major financial challenges and required subsidies to operate. Anyone trying to justify that law on the basis of helping taxpayers has some serious explaining to do. Local governments should be able to make these decisions without interference from states or Washington, DC.

Spanish Fork Building Gig Fiber over Cable Network - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 170

The Spanish Fork Community Network has long been among the most successful community broadband projects. And now that the community has finished paying off the debt of the network, they are using the net income to upgrade to a fiber network that will be capable of delivering a symmetrical gigabit to anyone in town.

John Bowcut, Director of Information Systems and SFCN Director, speaks with us again this week to explain how the project is doing and how they plan to upgrade to fiber. They are pursuing a unique upgrade to our knowledge -- they are building fiber over the coax and will operate both. Telephone and Internet access will run over the fiber and television over the cable.

The network has paid back its debt and continues to generate impressive community savings. With a take rate of 80 percent of the community, the network saves a cumulative $3 million each year. That is a lot of money circulating in the city of 35,000 people.

We previously spoke with John in episode 60. You can read all of our coverage of Spanish Fork here.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."

Spanish Fork Upgrading to Fiber in Utah

Spanish Fork Community Network (SFCN) recently announced it is upgrading its cable network to a fiber optic network. The network has already started improving services by increasing speeds for the highest tiers at no extra cost reports the Herald Extra.

Residents and businesses in the town of approximately 37,000 have relied on the municipal cable network since 2001. Over the past 14 years, the network has come to provide triple-play to 80 percent of Spanish Fork homes.

Officials kicked off construction on September 3rd:

“We’re excited this is the next step for the SFCN network," [SFCN Director John] Bowcut said. "We’ve always planned on doing fiber to the home, and now we’re in the fiscal position where we can go ahead and install that for our customers."

Customers who choose to remain with the lowest tier - 12 Mbps / 3 Mbps - will remain on the coax infrastructure, says Bowcut, but will be switched to fiber if they choose to upgrade to a higher tier.

The city made its last bond payment for the existing system this year and will use newly available funds from retiring the debt to fund the upgrade. Assistant City Manager Seth Perrins describes the early deployment as "soft" so officials can obtain a better understanding of cost demands, construction management, and how long the project will take. They estimate the project will be complete by 2020.

According to Bowcut, Premium service that is now 120 Mbps / 15 Mbps will transition into symmetrical gigabit service for around $68 per month. PLUS service, currently 60 Mbps / 10 Mbps, will be upgraded to 100 Mbps symmetrical for approximately $45 per month. The Starter tier at 12 Mbps / 3 Mbps will remain $35 per month. All three tiers offer discounts when purchased with TV service.

Read more about Spanish Fork, one of the early municipal networks, and listen to Chris interview John Bowcut during Episode #60 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We have an updated interview with John ready for an upcoming podcast.

Who Has Citywide Gigabit Internet Access for $100 or Less?

As Westminster begins serving customers with its new FTTH network and partner Ting, we were curious how many communities are there where a residential subscriber can obtain affordable gigabit access? We estimate the number of networks, large or small, where a majority of residents in a community can obtain gigabit service for $100 or less to be 12. Westminster will be there in a few years.

Update: Russellville, Kentucky and Salisbury, North Carolina, also offer a gigabit, bringing the total number of citywide gigabit networks to 14. On September 1, we added another network that we previously overlooked - CSpire in Quitman and Flora, Mississippi (and soon others).

Municipal citywide, sub $100 gigabit providers:

  • Leverett, Massachusetts
  • North Kansas City, Missouri
  • Chattanooga, Tennessee
  • Tullahoma, Tennessee
  • Sandy, Oregon
  • UTOPIA Cities, Utah
  • Russellville, Kentucky
  • Salisbury, North Carolina (Fibrant)


  • Paul Bunyan Communications, Minnesota
  • Farmer's Telecom, Alabama
  • Co-Mo Connect, Missouri

Private Companies:

  • Google - Kansas City, Provo
  • CSpire - Quitman and Flora, Mississippi
  • MetroNet - Crawfordsville, Indiana (formerly a muni)
  • Burlington, Vermont - (currently privately owned, formerly a muni with future in limbo)

We included municipal networks, cooperatives, and privately owned companies. When considering networks that cover multiple jurisdictions in a single area, we counted it as one (thus Google counts as 1 in KC, Chattanooga is 1 in TN). And we were looking for gigabit networks - not just gigabit download. While we prefer to see symmetrical connections, we accepted 500 Mbps up for our threshold.

We could not identify any cities served by AT&T, CenturyLink, Verizon, Comcast, Cox, or any other similar company where the majority of the community has access to a gig. Those providers tend to cherry pick and even then, their prices are over $100 typically. For example, CenturyLink advertises a gig at $80 but then requires other services and hidden fees that make the monthly bill closer to $150.

We found affordable residential gigabit service from networks in urban, suburban, or rural communities from 12 networks (some of which cover multiple communities). Trying to determine how much of the community has access to a service is challenging, so please contact us with any corrections. In a few years, munis like Longmont and private companies like Ting will join the list. 

While the number of providers are few, many of them do serve multiple communities. The coops, including Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative in Alabama and Missouri's Co-Mo Cooperative, provide the service to a long list of smaller communities within their service areas. There is also the open access network UTOPIA, with at least 7 providers that offer gigabit FTTH below our price point in nine communities currently served by the network (to various degrees, some cities have little coverage whereas others are almost entirely built out). 

Prices range from $0 to $99.95 per month with the highest concentration at $70 or higher. In North Kansas City, residents pay $300 for installation and receive gigabit Internet access for $0 per month for the next 10 years. This incredible offer is available due to the presence of LiNKCity, a network deployed by the city and now managed and operated by a private partner. 

AT&T has launched its $70 GigaPower in parts of 12 different metro areas, although the price requires users to submit to a special web based advertising program. Even when these big firms finally invest in high capacity connections, they find new ways to exploit their subscribers - a reminder that who deploys a technology can be as important as what that technology is.

Now that the gig barrier has been blasted away (primarily by municipal networks and smaller ISPs) we expect to see more networks and providers offering affordable gig service to residents. 

Gigabit Cat photo courtesy of Michael Himbeault and shared through a Creative Commons license.

Gigabit Networks and Utah: March 24th Luncheon and Webcast

On Friday, April 24th, make plans to attend the Utah and Broadband Breakfast Club Luncheon Event. If you can't make it in person, attend the webcast. The topic: Gigabit Networks in Utah.

From the announcement:

In announcing in late March that Google Fiber will expand to Salt Lake City (its eighth metropolitan area nationwide), the broadband world turned its envying eyes on Utah. With Google Fiber in Provo and now Salt Lake -- and with Gigabit Networks available in the 11 cities served by the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, or UTOPIA -- Utah is poised to be the first state where a substantial portion of its residents have access to the fastest-possible broadband internet services.

What does Google's investments say about the economic health and technology-savvy nature of Utah? What do cities and citizens get from Google Fiber that they haven't gotten from traditional telecom companies? And, for cities and states seeking to get a Gig, what are the best options to build and enhance Gigabit Networks?

A panel of experts will discuss what Google and Gig networks mean to Utah and its citizens. The webcast is free and the event is $25 for Nonmembers of the Utah Breakfast Club or $15 for Members. Lunch will be served at the Utah State Capitol at 11:30 a.m. MT and the panel discussion will and webcast will start at 2 p.m. ET/Noon MT.

As a bonus, you may now obtain a free three-month trial membership to the Utah Breakfast Club.

Panelists will be:

  • Devin Baer, Head of Fiber Business, Salt Lake, Google
  • Paul Cutler, Mayor, City of Centerville, Utah
  • Justin Jones, Vice President, Public Policy and Communications, Salt Lake Chamber
  • David Shaw, Shareholder, Kirton McConkie; Chair, Government and Utilities Practice Group
  • Moderated by Drew Clark, Of Counsel, Kirton McConkie; Founder, Utah Breakfast Club

Register online for the webcast or buy tickets for the live event.

Municipal Networks and Small ISP Partners to FCC: Title II Not a Problem

A group of municipal leaders and their private sector small ISP partners submitted an ex parte filing with the FCC today stating that they see no reason to fear Title II reclassification of Internet access. The statement, signed by a variety of towns and providers from different areas of the country is reproduced in full:

Dear Chairman Wheeler,

As a group of local governments and small ISPs that have been working to expand the highest quality Internet access to our communities, we commend you for your efforts to improve Internet access across the country. We are committed to a free and open Internet without blocking, throttling, or discriminating by ISPs.

As local governments and small ISPs, we wanted to ensure you are aware that not all local governments and ISPs think alike on matters like reclassification. For instance, on July 18, 2014, the mayors of New York City; Portland, Oregon; and San Francisco called on you to issue the strongest possible rules to guarantee Net Neutrality. Each of these communities is also taking steps to expand and improve high quality Internet access to their businesses and residents.

Our approaches vary but are already resulting in the highest level of service available because we are committed to expanding high quality Internet access to supercharge local economies and improve quality of life. We have no interest in simply replicating older triple play model approaches. We want to build the infrastructure of the future and we see nothing in the proposed Title II reclassification of Internet access that would hinder our ability to do that. As Sonic CEO Dane Jasper has strongly argued, ISPs that don’t want to interfere with their subscribers’ traffic should expect a light regulatory touch.

We thank you for your leadership during this difficult period of transition. We understand that many of our colleagues have trouble trusting the FCC given a history that has, in many cases, ignored the challenges small entities face in this industry. But whether it has been increasing the speed definition of broadband, or calling for the removal of barriers to community networks, we have been impressed with your willingness to take on powerful interest groups to ensure the Internet remains a vibrant, open platform.

We look forward to working with you to ensure that future rules recognize the unique challenges of small providers and innovative approaches to expanding access.


  • Peter d'Errico, Town of Leverett MA, Municipal Light Plant, Town of Leverett MA Select Board
  • Fletcher Kittredge, President and CEO, GWI, Maine
  • Rick Bates, Town Manager, Town of Rockport, Maine
  • Kevin Utz, Mayor, Westminster, Maryland
  • Dr Robert Wack, Council Member, Westminster, Maryland 
  • R. Brough Turner, Founder and CTO, netBlazr Inc., Boston, MA
  • Pete Ashdown, Founder and CEO of XMission, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Elliot Noss, CEO, Tucows / Ting
  • Kim Kleppe, Information Systems Director, City of Mount Vernon, Washington
  • Dana Kirkham, Mayor, City of Ammon, ID
  • Levi C. Maaia, President, Full Channel Labs, Warren, Rhode Island

You can also view the PDF of the filing at the FCC website.

For more on Title II and how it may or may not affect municipal networks and their private partners, listen to Chris interview Chris Lewis from Public Knowledge in Episode #138 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

An Update on Utah's UTOPIA Open Access Network

For the facts on all things UTOPIA, we turn to Jesse Harris at In his latest post, he provides an excellent bullet list of the key factors in Macquarie's Milestone 2 proposal. An excerpt From his post:

  • The final cost per address is estimated at $22.60 per month. Macquarie estimates that re-working the deal to account for five cities bowing out trimmed the cost by $8.57 per month.
  • The revenue split is much more generous than I expected, allowing the cities to keep 75% of wholesale revenue after the first $2M per year. It’s expected to completely cover the debt service by 2021 with just a 24% take rate for premium services.
  • The basic level service has also been improved. Instead of 3M/3M service being included at no extra cost, it’s been bumped to 5M/5M. This matches Google Fiber speeds on the free tier. The data cap stays put at 20GB per month.
  • Almost all of the network revenues are being driven by Veracity, XMission, and SumoFiber. Other ISPs are very small by comparison.
  • The majority of currently connected users are in opt-out cities. This only reinforced that the votes there were “we got ours” selfishness.

Jesse has also managed to obtain a draft copy of the Milestone Two Report and has it posted for your review at his blog.

Recently, the network settled a long running dispute with the Rural Utility Service (RUS), reported the Standard Examiner. UTOPIA was awarded a $10 million settlement in a lawsuit filed in September 2011.

A November Salt Lake Tribune article reported that the RUS encouraged UTOPIA to seek federal loans in 2004 but took 19 months to approve the first payment, generating unanticipated expenses. Later, the agency withdrew promised funding with no formal reason. 

Community Broadband Media Roundup - December 12, 2014

This week in Community Broadband networks... partnerships, cooperatives, and going-it-alone. For a background in muni networks, check out this recent article from FiscalNote. The article highlights Kansas and Utah's fight for improving beyond the minimum speeds. 

Speaking of minimum, the FCC announced its new "rock bottom" for regulated broadband speeds. Ars Technica's Jon Brodkin reports that despite AT&T, Verizon, and the National Cable and Telecom Association's protests, ISPs that use government subsidies to build rural broadband networks must provide speeds of at least 10 Mbps for downloads.

Rural Americans should not be left behind those who live in big cities, the FCC announcement today said. "According to recent data, 99 percent of Americans living in urban areas have access to fixed broadband speeds of 10/1, which can accommodate more modern applications and uses. Moreover, the vast majority of urban households are able to subscribe to even faster service," the FCC said.

The FCC plans to offer nearly $1.8 billion a year to carriers willing to expand service to 5 million rural Americans. 

This is a step in the right direction, but we are alarmed to see a download:upload ratio of 10:1. People in rural areas need to upload as well as download - our comments to the FCC strongly recommended raising the upstream threshold as well and we are very disappointed to see that remain a pathetic 1 Mbps.

And, from TechDirt's own "who can you trust if you can't trust the phone company department," Karl Bode found that a study by the AT&T-funded Progressive Policy Institute concluded that if Title II regulations were passed, the nation would be "awash in $15 billion in various new Federal and State taxes and fees. Bode writes that the study cherry-picked and conflated data:

The reality the broadband industry doesn't want to acknowledge is that very little changes for it under Title II if carriers aren't engaged in bad behavior. The broadband industry is fighting Title II solely to protect potential revenues generated from abusing uncompetitive markets. That this self-serving behavior is being dressed up as concern about the size of your broadband bill is the industry's best comedic work to date.

Cities Pursuing Community Broadband

Nancy Scola reported on the growing collective of "Next Century Cities." 

[The group's] early expansion is a signal of what seems to be a shift in the way Americans are thinking about high-speed Internet access: the idea that cities will the battlegrounds for the playing out of the broadband debates. One effect of these cities working so closely with Google as it rolls out its fiber network in places like Kansas City and Austin is a realization that mayors can take broadband into their own hands -- whether that's through a municipal solution like Chattanooga's gigabit network or through partnering with traditional Internet service providers such as Comcast or Time Warner Cable.

Other partnerships are also moving muni networks forward

At the same time as the Next Century Cities announcement, the Department of Agriculture announced $190.5 million in grants and loans for rural broadband and telecommunications infrastructure.

"Modern telecommunications and broadband access is now as essential to the businesses and residents of rural America as electricity was in the 1930s," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in a USDA statement. The funding will go towards providing, “broadband in areas that lack it, help rural-serving public television stations begin using digital broadcasts and support other telecommunications infrastructure improvements."

Jason Meyers with LightReading explains why utility companies (like EPB in Chattanooga) are positioned so well to be home to gigabit networks.  

Several communities are considering local options for networks. Some are just in the earliest study phases: Medina County and Athens in Ohio and Walla Walla, Washington are among them. RS Fiber in Minnesota has approved its updated business plan and financial strategy, meaning it can move forward with its cooperative network, and several communities in Northeastern Oklahoma are pursuing a cooperative plan as well.

It looks like the push for local options in Colorado is having an affect on other communities. Aspen and Pitkin County have submitted requests for proposals-- perhaps inspired by Longmont, Boulder, and the rest of the communities we reported on after the November referenda.  

Meantime, Bruce Kushnick with the Huffington Post reported this week that communities all over the country have been paying for fiber infrastructure upgrades, but have seen almost none of the investment. 

Starting in 1991, the phone companies went state-to-state to get changes in state laws, known as "alternative regulations" to charge customers for the replacement of the copper wires that were part of the state-based utility, like Verizon New Jersey, with a fiber optic wire capable of 45 Mbps in both directions, the standard speed for broadband in 1992.

And though it varied by state, this fiber optic wiring was to be done everywhere -- urban, rural, and suburban, rich and poor communities and cities, and even the schools were to be wired in some states. All customers were paying for the upgrades of this future fiber optic broadband utility so they all deserved to be upgraded.

Check it out and see if your community is on the list. And if you think this isn't the first time you've heard about this Big Ripoff, you're right-- We interviewed him on Community Broadband Bits Episode 28

Net Neutrality

This week, New Jersey's Cory Booker and Maine's Angus King defended net neutrality on CNN. 

The Internet is one of the most powerful tools on the planet. Across the globe, millions of people connect every minute of every day to harness its wealth of information, exchange ideas in an open platform and foster the type of innovation and entrepreneurship that spurs economic growth.

And today, it's never been more at risk in the United States.

Washington Post's Brian Fung reported that there are hints that the telecom industry is preparing for a new Title II reclassification. Verizon's CFO Francis Shammo said, in a nutshell, that the company would do just fine if the FCC imposed the stricter regulations. 

"I mean to be real clear, I mean this does not influence the way we invest. I mean we're going to continue to invest in our networks and our platforms, both in Wireless and Wireline FiOS and where we need to. So nothing will influence that. I mean if you think about it, look, I mean we were born out of a highly regulated company, so we know how this operates.

Despite this very clear statement, we expect to see still more claims from groups like the AT&T puppet Progressive Policy Institute that Title II would somehow cause major carriers to invest even less in networks across the United States. Though, if the market were half as competitive as they claim, any firm that invested less would be in big trouble! How do we know when they are lying? Well, are their lips moving?

Layton Resident Breaks Down the Numbers on UTOPIA Service: Letter to the Editor

Thane Packer, a Layton resident, attended a community meeting this fall to learn what he could about UTOPIA. Packer is like many others who consider his costs for Internet, TV, and phone as an important factor in whether or not to support UTOPIA. After attending the meeting, he considered the presentation and what he described as "some very heated, and some very biased opinions."

He then examined his existing triple play costs and shared his findings in a letter to the Standard Examiner. The rest of his letter is reproduced below (emphasis ours):

The total bundled bill for home phone, Internet, and a TV package was $273.63. That is $93.25 per month for the internet and home phone plus $180 for TV. The telephone service is fine but the Internet is frustrating. The signal fluctuates, is spotty and unreliable.

In Provo, because there is competition from a fiber optic network, this exact same package, which includes, total Internet, home phone and the TV package is available from a provider for only $99.94 a month.

This means that even if I didn’t use a fiber network like the one in Provo the competition price from the provider would save me $178.69 a month. That means that without the competition from a fiber system like UTOPIA, the provider stands to make, (from me) a total of $2,144.28 a year and in 25 years (the pay-off time for the current bond, for which we receive nothing) is over $53,000

If I were able to switch to fiber system here in Layton a much better service would cost even less and I can certainly find a better place to use my $53,000.

So ask yourself this question. What is your current service costing you, how much extra are you paying, and what are you getting for it? For me the advantage of saving at least $178.69 a month and getting better service for it is obvious.

So please Layton, find a way to make this or something like it work for us. A very vocal minority should not be able deprive the rest of us from better cheaper service.

Utopia at a Crossroads: Part 3

This is the final installment of a three part series, in which we examine the current state of the UTOPIA network, how it got there, and the choices it faces going forward. Part I can be read here and Part II here

In Part I of this story, we laid out the difficult situation the open access UTOPIA network finds itself in and how it got there. Part II gave the broad outlines of Macquarie’s preliminary proposal for a public-private partnership to complete and operate the network. The numbers we deal with here are mostly from the Milestone One report, and assumed the participation of all 11 cities. It should be noted that since five of eleven UTOPIA cities opted out of proceeding to Milestone Two negotiations, the scope and scale of the project is subject to change. The basic structure of the potential deal is mostly set, however, allowing us to draw some reasonable conclusions about whether or not this deal is good for the citizens of the UTOPIA cities.

Let’s first turn to why Macquarie wants to make this investment.  This would be the firm’s first large scale broadband network investment in the U.S., allowing it to get a foothold in a massive market that has a relatively underdeveloped fiber infrastructure. To offset network build and operation costs, it will also be guaranteed the revenue from the monthly utility fee, which my very rough calculations put between $18 and $20 million for the six cities opting in to Milestone Two (or between $30 and $33 million per year for all 11 cities) depending on whether the final fee ends up closer to $18 or $20 per month.

Jesse Harris of FreeUTOPIA puts Macquarie’s base rate of return between 3.7% and 4.7%, which is slim enough that they should have the incentive to make the network successful and truly universal, boosting their share of the revenue from transport fees in the process.

The monthly utility fee is a difficult pill for UTOPIA cities to swallow politically, and has allowed opponents to paint it as a massive new tax.  But this claim ignores the costs of the existing $500 million debt (including interest), which will have to be paid regardless of whether the network is ever completed or any more revenue is generated.

The existing debt adds up to about $8.50 per month per address over 30 years, without accounting for ongoing operating losses (or bond prepayment penalties if the network goes dark) or necessary network maintenance and upgrades. Without completing the network, there is no hope that it could return to self-sufficiency, meaning it would likely require operating subsidies in perpetuity.

Again, Jesse Harris has paved the way by doing an analysis of what is in the best interest of taxpayers from a purely self-interested perspective (ignoring indirect benefits of the network) here and here. As he sees it, it all depends on the take rate: if Macquarie can reach a 38% take rate in the newly expanded network coverage area, the entire deal will cost the same for taxpayers as simply selling off the network. A higher take rate would mean the cities actually spend less to get a completed network than they would to sell it off. But that’s only a narrow look at the balance sheet.

Even at the point where the deal is a wash financially, cities still get a completed network with an included basic level of service for every resident. Comcast and CenturyLink will slash their prices substantially in response to the competition (at least 50% in Provo) so that every citizen benefits regardless of if they use the network. Even for someone with a very basic Internet connection that wouldn’t use the network, they would be paying no more than $11.48 to potentially save at least $15, a net gain. The cities also get a $100M annual revenue stream at the end of the 30-year contract, effectively making the worst case scenario break even after less than seven years of ownership.

Opponents, especially those from the CenturyLink-funded Utah Taxpayer Association (UTA), have focused on the extra cost from the new utility fee to the small segment of the population that neither has nor wants a telecommunications connection. However, some studies have also shown that a fiber connection increases the value of a property, so there really may be some gain for everyone under this deal.

As it stands today, 2,100 miles of fiber have already been built, 70% of it underground. 40% of UTOPIA addresses are passed by the network (meaning they are able to purchase a connection upfront or on a payment plan), but only 10% are actually connected. Some cities are almost completely covered, others less than 20%. Some neighborhoods have one side of a street where connections are offered and the other where services are unavailable. The result of constant funding constraints, frivolous incumbent lawsuits, and poor planning, these pieces of stranded infrastructure can still be reclaimed and capitalized on with additional investment. 

Essentially, UTOPIA city taxpayers are on the hook either way. They can either get something for their troubles with the Macquarie deal (and maybe even end up paying less), or they can call it quits and pay to shut it down. They‘ve taken out a mortgage and built most of the house, but run out of money before they put a roof on. They can either restructure the debt and get on a payment plan to finish the roof, or they can watch the house rot and pay the mortgage for 30 years anyway. 

It is important to note that UTOPIA has a unique dynamic because the network has struggled financially (unlike the vast majority of community networks, most of which use a different business model and learned from the early mistakes of UTOPIA). We have not yet seen any communities proposing to establish a utility fee from the start, but it is an interesting proposition and we will explore it at length in a paper later this summer.