Rebutting the Robocalls

August 15th, 2012

With all the excitement (that’s one word for it) going on in Orem this week, it seems the Sutherland Institute, a conservative “think tank” based here in Utah, has been making robocalls to the fine folks in Orem. They were trying to rally listeners to oppose the property tax hike there, to prevent the funding of the “failed” (their word) UTOPIA project.

We had Dave Buer of Sutherland here at the office a couple of weeks ago. He interviewed Todd Marriott, our executive director, on camera regarding the Orem issues. I was rather surprised that they would reach the conclusion that UTOPIA is “failed” and sought clarification from Dave directly. He says:

“After studying the issue in-depth, doing the interviews, reading the legislative audit, we can’t help but conclude that UTOPIA is a failed project. By any objective measure, an organization that has net assets of negative $120 million after ten years of operations is a failed project…unless it’s a government program. And in that respect, we fundamentally disagree with the premise that UTOPIA is infrastructure that government must provide as a ‘public good.’ We also recognize that truth is scary sometimes…as is a distorted perspective that is given a reality check. By government program standards, like the US Postal Service, UTOPIA could be doing what it said it would do. As a viable ‘free market’ project, it is a literal failure.”

So, how does UTOPIA respond to that? Several ways.

The Sutherland Institute espouses seven “Governing Principles.” Among the things they feel “Utah law, policy, and culture must cherish” is “free markets as the engine of economic opportunity.” Given Dave’s response above, we must assume that, when it comes to broadband options, Sutherland actually believes in monopolies or duopolies of private companies, not that their robocall made that clear. UTOPIA’s open access network – which, yes, is owned by 11 city governments – gives consumers a real choice for broadband, and allows ISPs (most of which are local companies!) to compete on our network (even Comcast and CenturyLink could ride our system if they wanted to).

As our friends at the Institute for Self Reliance just shared on our blog, “People living within the UTOPIA footprint have a more vibrant market for broadband than any other Americans. Local businesses have a competitive advantage in telecommunications over all of Utah and much of America.” But don’t tell that to the Sutherland Institute.

Another Governing Principle is “limited government as a reflection of good government.” We assume Sutherland would be among those leading the charge against the so-called “nanny state,” but the irony is that they are being the nanny in this situation, trying to tell Orem (and probably the others UTOPIA cities) that “Sutherland knows best.” If a handful of Utah cities want to do something on their own initiative and decide it’s what’s best for their communities, who are the Sutherland Institute, the Utah Taxpayer’s Association or any other peripheral group to say otherwise? Let’s allow the elected officials of each city decide what is best for their city. We can’t imagine the Sutherland Institute would decry that.

As Alex Jensen, city manager of Layton and Utah Infrastructure Agency first vice chairman, recently stated to a Utah legislative subcommittee, the cities that created UTOPIA are among Utah’s best-run cities. The same qualities and acumen that city employees and city councils apply to managing their cities was and is applied to vetting the UTOPIA effort. Jensen made it clear that the cities came into UTOPIA with their eyes wide open. For outsiders like Sutherland to challenge that rigorous and critical approach is condescending and paternalistic.

It’s also shortsighted. Since the Sutherland Institute is eager to have the citizens of Orem oppose the proposed tax increase, and as they label UTOPIA a “failed project,” we presume they would like Orem (and probably the other cities) to pull out of the project. Okay…then what? Those opposed to UTOPIA keep admonishing cities to “get out” of UTOPIA, but never have an answer for the remaining bond obligations. Should Orem default on the bonds? That is a stark idea. Taking that step would have repercussions that would dwarf any UTOPIA concerns. If, however, Sutherland grudgingly admits Orem should pay for the bonds but nevertheless pull out of the network, shouldn’t Orem then realize the benefits the network provides (such as getting more subscribers to pay the costs)? Where is their solution?

But, as the people behind the Sutherland Institute are not experts in community broadband, we aren’t surprised they don’t have an answer. It’s easy to point fingers and cry “failure.” It’s harder to propose solutions that might even work (and, in their case, don’t alienate their support base). Perhaps Sutherland is ready to judge the I-15 CORE project in Utah County a failure well before it’s complete (it won’t make any money, after all).

As for being a failure, we aren’t dead and buried yet, to put it bluntly. We’re still fighting here. Last August, the St. Louis Cardinals were 10.5 games out of a playoff spot, with about five weeks left in the season. Did they declare the season a failed project? No, they kept playing, started winning, and wound up the World Series champions. We haven’t reached the finish line yet, so it’s too early to cry “failure!” But, again, “Sutherland knows best,” right?

Instead of throwing up roadblocks and shilling for the incumbent telecommunications companies, those opposed to UTOPIA— those who want us to think they are looking out for the taxpayer—should propose the only solution that really benefits the taxpayer: do what it takes to grow the network as quickly as possible and drive up the subscriber base so that the subscriber revenue can cover the costs, not city revenues (i.e., taxes). It’s not rocket science!