Sharing Information in the Information Age

June 22nd, 2012

Attending a city council meeting where a property tax increase is the central focus, and where interlocal agency you work for is considered the primary reason for that tax increase, can be a very interesting and educational experience.

Tuesday night (June 19), the Orem City Council welcomed more than 250 people (according to one report) to a public hearing on the hot-button issue. Fairly or unfairly, UTOPIA’s impact on the Orem budget and the proposed tax increase was on almost everyone’s minds. (As an aside, the Provo Daily Herald insists on referring to the city’s UTOPIA obligation as “the heart” of the budget. For an item that represents about 3.2% of the budget to be considered the heart seems like a distortion.)

While I didn’t attend the full meeting, I witnessed 37 people stand up and address the council. Almost all mentioned UTOPIA one way or another. Because of the proposed tax, most were opposed to UTOPIA, but more than a few expressed support of UTOPIA and the need for technology infrastructure. What no one mentioned is that sales tax revenue, which was the original idea for how Orem would pay its UTOPIA obligations, has been declining. Combine the growth of on-line sales with a down economy, and, voila you’re facing a sales tax shortfall.

The interesting part of the night was all the bad information that was thrown around the council chambers. It’s great to see democracy in action, but it’s troubling to see opinions and supposition parading as fact. One older gentleman was flabbergasted that a UTOPIA connection costs $4,000 and that people would pay $300 a month for it. No, sir, that’s not how it works. If you want to own the UTOPIA connection to your home, you can pay a one-time fee of $2750. Or you can spread those payments out over the years, or you can lease the equipment. Then you pick the service provider you want. As for $300 a month, apparently he confused the 1-gig service available through select UTOPIA partners (for $299) with the more usual offerings, like a “50/50” connection for $65 (or just $35 if you own the connection outright).

From this experience, it’s clear that we on the UTOPIA side have some work to do on educating people in our cities. We own up to it and are working on it. The only way to counter bad information is to propagate good information. Last night’s meeting highlighted a few key areas we need to focus on:

·         Fiber optics will be or are obsolete, so why invest more in UTOPIA?

Until some mechanism is found that can exceed the speed of light, optic fibers—which transmit data using light—are never going to be obsolete. Fiber provides more accurate and reliable data transmission than copper wiring (“cable”), and fiber has a much higher maximum capacity (i.e., “bandwidth”). Some point to wireless solutions or even satellite communications as the real answer. Wireless is clearly beneficial in limited user situations…but some don’t seem to understand that fiber is still powering wireless. Wireless isn’t 100% wireless. And, if a whole neighborhood is trying to stream HD video through the same wireless hotspot, a lot of people are going to be upset and disappointed.

·         The “Internet” isn’t the issue

It’s perhaps natural that some are upset about what seems to be a luxury—faster access to the Internet. While the “Internet” in a general sense may be the result of what UTOPIA offers, the real issue is infrastructure. It’s about being prepared for revolutionary technology and the way we live our lives in an on-line world. It’s about getting things done and having unfettered access to data, for work, education, and entertainment. My first exposure to the Internet came in early 1995. It was great then, but at the time I had no clue regarding the transcendent impact it (and the parallel development of technology) would have on so many aspects of our lives. And it’s anything but static. Our technology infrastructure can’t be static either.

·         Government shouldn’t be competing with private enterprise

Short answer: UTOPIA doesn’t compete with private enterprise. Coinciding with the previous item, UTOPIA doesn’t provide “Internet,” but the next-gen infrastructure to power it. Infrastructure is a government concern. Connectivity infrastructure requires municipal and federal participation. Until a private entity is willing to fund and operate “open-access” under appropriate topology architecture, government involvement cannot be limited.

In other words, if Comcast was wiring every home and business in Orem with fiber, would Comcast allow competitors to use it? Highly unlikely, and even if they did, the fee to access it would make true competition untenable. It would be a monopoly. Open access is the only way to do this, bringing the benefits of high bandwidth to all who want it, and the government—in this case, the cities that came together and formed UTOPIA—is the only entity that can make it happen. By partnering with qualified Internet Service Providers, UTOPIA is fostering competition, giving consumers a real choice.

 ·         Why doesn’t Orem (or other city) just get out of UTOPIA? 

By joining UTOPIA, Orem made a financial commitment to the network and to the other member cities. This commitment legally remains intact even if Orem were to leave the network.  The best course of action to ensure those financial obligations are met is for member cities of UTOPIA to work together for the success of the network. By utilizing the network to facilitate more and more city services, the city will cut costs and significantly improve on those services. Simply put, the more successful UTOPIA is, the quicker the financial obligation of the cities is met.

·         UTOPIA vs. Orem

Many of the concerns voiced at the meeting employed stark “us vs. them” language, as if UTOPIA was unfairly tormenting Orem. But, as the above item illustrates, UTOPIA is Orem. Or, more simply, UTOPIA is the creation of Orem and the other cities that banded together in 2004 to bring fiber optic technology to the people. While not ignoring the need to do better and successfully grow UTOPIA, painting Orem and UTOPIA as adversaries is counterproductive.

A decade ago, when people started making the switch from dial-up to broadband, Netflix, Hulu, HD video downloads and cloud computing were not yet around. Now, in 2012, these on-demand services that require significant bandwidth are just the vanguard of the complete “digitization” of our lives. Consider: 72 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute (103,680 hours per day!), and more than 3 billion hours of video are watched each month on the site. The existing infrastructure is not robust enough to power the next wave of on-line apps and cannot maximize the hoped-for benefits of WiFi/WiMax; only fiber-backed wireless has a chance to do so, and even then the system would be stretched.

Orem and the other Utah cities that came together to form UTOPIA should be commended for its forward thinking and taking steps now to be ready, and for making the hard choices. UTOPIA is eager to make fiber work in Orem and all our cities. It will work.