Politician seeking limits on UTOPIA fiber network wants “accountability”

February 8th, 2014

Article was originally published in Ars Technica on February 7, 2014 by Jon Brodkin

The Utah legislator who filed a bill to limit the growth of government-funded fiber networks contends that protests of the bill are based on a “misunderstanding” and that some minor adjustments will clear everything up.The legislation would make it illegal for an “interlocal entity” to provide telecommunication service on fiber optic networks in any location outside the boundaries of its member cities. It is targeted at UTOPIA, the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency, a fiber network consortium of 16 cities that has built infrastructure in non-member municipalities such as Salt Lake City.

Bill seen as gift to incumbent ISPs who are threatened by UTOPIA fiber network.
“Somehow the bill has gotten mischaracterized in the public eye,” Utah Rep. and bill author Curt Webb told Ars in an e-mailed response to our questions. Webb said he’s met with lobbyists and people in the industry over the past few days.
While “much of the misunderstanding has been cleared up, you may see a few minor adjustments to provide that clarification,” he said. “The bill does not prohibit infrastructure expansion. In fact, it addresses no other entity than UTOPIA. UTOPIA is a government entity created by an interlocal agreement, and the public asks for and deserves transparency and accountability of them. The bill requires that any city into which UTOPIA expands become a member city.”

UTOPIA Legislative Policy Director Gary Crane had argued that the bill would do nothing except “damage or punish the UTOPIA cities.”

As we wrote previously, “UTOPIA has partnered with one business ‘to create a fiber ring around Salt Lake City, and that partnership provided that others could connect onto that system to defray costs.’ Future connections that require a new contract could be barred… Crane said UTOPIA is also worried the bill could disrupt negotiations with investment firm Macquarie Capital, which are aimed at finishing construction of the fiber network.”

Webb told Ars that his bill “is not designed to damage UTOPIA in any way, but rather to provide clarity and accountability to citizens who may be involved in that expansion.” Accountability is needed because if UTOPIA service in a non-member city went wrong, “who would the citizens in that area turn to? That user is not a citizen of the providing entity. Their own non-member city could say, ‘we are not UTOPIA.’ If they turned to UTOPIA for help, those member cities could say, ‘You are not our constituent.'”

That’s true as far as it goes, but it actually isn’t very different from the usual model. Residents don’t get service from UTOPIA directly—they get it from private Internet service providers just as they would from Comcast or CenturyLink. UTOPIA itself is an open access network upon which any private company can offer Internet access. ISPs offering service over UTOPIA fiber include Brigham.net, Fibernet, InfoWest, SumoFiber, Veracity, XMission.

“Because our network is open, the incumbent telecoms are welcome to join our network, but have elected not to,” UTOPIA says.

Government agencies and businesses in Salt Lake City and other municipalities are getting Internet service from UTOPIA fiber, despite those cities not being members of UTOPIA. “We have fiber connections just about everywhere,” Crane told Ars. He said it’s difficult to get city governments to join officially.

There may be good reason for cities to be reluctant to join UTOPIA. The group has struggled financially, with a legislative audit in 2012 finding that it “spent nearly all of its $185 million in bond proceeds, though only 59 percent of that has gone toward building infrastructure for the municipal fiber-optics network,” according to the Deseret News.

Construction has taken years longer than expected, and until it breaks even, “member cities collectively must continue to make annual payments of nearly $13 million for debt service on the bonds,” said the Deseret News article, published in August 2012.

Not all UTOPIA member cities are pledging members, however. Non-pledging member cities don’t have to cover bond payments, but they aren’t promised fiber build-outs until construction in the pledging cities is done.

Webb indicated that cities can become non-pledging members of UTOPIA and meet the requirements of his bill. “Inter local agreements between cities constitute government entities, and those entities need to be subject to accountability and transparency laws,” Webb wrote in an e-mail to a Utah resident, which was shared with Ars. “We expect that and demand that as citizens. Cities may join as non-pledging members. It isn’t difficult.”