Broadband Bytes for 2015-11-06

The Need for Speed: UTOPIA bumping 100Mbps tiers to 250Mbps

moarWord is coming in that UTOPIA customers on the 100Mbps tier are about to get a very nice present: a free bump to 250Mbps. SumoFiber has already updated their website to reflect the change and other providers are expected to follow suit soon. This counters the fastest tier that Comcast has been able to offer (before their fabled 2Gbps vaporware tier materializes) with 5x the upload and blows way past the horrifically antiquated ADSL2+ tiers that CenturyLink hasn’t updated in many, many years.

This highlights the power of using a fiber network. When you need more speed, you flip a switch and maybe upgrade some electronics. CenturyLink is still years from offering any significant fiber deployments (outside of heavily cherry-picked areas willing and able to pay big bucks) and Comcast is still having trouble getting DOCSIS 3.1 rolled out in any significant volume to deliver anything approaching what UTOPIA is doing now.

If you’re on UTOPIA, have you already gotten the speed bump? Sound off in the comments.

Google is botching iProvo, but will anyone investigate?

Google_fiber_logoA lot of people tend to turn off the critical thinking the minute Google comes to town with their Magic Fiber Elixir. I’ve already spilled a lot of digital ink on why I think it’s a bum deal, so I don’t need to rehash that here. What does need to be asked is if their slick marketing campaigns and brand power are being used to avoid any level of accountability from the cities they make deals with. Right now, I think the answer is a resounding yes.

I’ve heard from multiple sources, some of them very close to Google Fiber, that take rates in Provo are not only well below Google’s expectations but below what Veracity had achieved while they still operated the network. The estimates I hear put take rates in the low-20s whereas Veracity had peaked around 30%. That giant plunge would be almost the entirely of the MDUs taking service from the last time those numbers were available. Part of this is to be expected. Google offered up a “free” tier of service for seven years to anyone who paid a pittance of a connection fee. In student-heavy Provo, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that this ended up being a very, very popular route to getting online.

I know some people are saying “so what? The network is theirs to make flourish or fail.” That’s not quite true, though. If you look very carefully at the contracts, the city has the right of first refusal to get the network back for the $1 that Google paid to use it. The odds of the city not exercising that right are extremely low. Citizens are still paying for the bonds via a utility fee. There is an immense public interest at stake here should Google decide to pull out of the business any time after the end of their seven-year obligation. When the city handed the network over to Google, it was covering operating expenses and the bond. A 25% hit on subscribers means going right back to propping it up from city coffers.

When the city owned and managed the network, there were monthly reports on subscribers and revenues broken down into segments. Once Broadweave came in (and was later acquired by Veracity), most of the numbers were sealed up as company trade secrets and the only public data was if the payments were being made or not. Veracity was more open that Broadweave about take rates and network challenges, but there was still a lot of data left up to speculation.

Once Google came in, the meager data dried up. I have little confidence that either Google or Provo’s elected officials (looking at you, Mayor Curtis) would give anything resembling a direct answer if asked, assuming they gave any response at all. Even worse, it seems that journalists who proudly proclaim to be the public watchdog aren’t going to even ask those kinds of questions, uncritically reprinting each press release as gospel truth.

If you live, work, or have any personal interest in Provo, you should pushing for answers before the city inherits another financial mess.

The Macquarie deal isn’t dead; it’s resting

Now a year late on delivering MS2, most people have assumed that the Macquarie deal is dead and buried. With no real news (other than the leak of the draft MS2 proposal from earlier this year), there’s been no evidence that the deal is alive at all. So is it dead? No, but it’s not exactly moving forward either.

As part of the deal, Macquarie wants a binding public vote on the MS2 proposal. This makes a lot of sense over a council vote. Some of the shenanigans in Orem with public referenda probably woke Macquarie up to how an irate minority can put their thumb on the political scales. A public vote can’t be overturned in a similar fashion.

Unfortunately, it’s also something that can’t be done. State law does not currently allow for a binding public vote on the city entering into a contract. The legislature has also not been in much of a hurry to change this. No action was taken in the previous legislative session, and there’s unlikely to be any action in the upcoming one. I can’t help but imagine that Comcast, CenturyLink, and their Utah Taxpayers Association lackeys have worked hard to shoot down the idea.

The short version is that if you want some finality on the deal, you need to bug your legislator to come up with some kind of fix allowing a public vote. Until that happens, this deal is effectively dead.

A UTOPIA Update: More network, more money

utopia-logoI had the opportunity last week to speak with Gary Jones and Kim McKinley from UTOPIA to get an update on where things stand. It seems like the main reason UTOPIA has been out of the news is that nobody wants to report on boring good news. Here’s a quick bullet list of the things you should know (with, you know, my standard commentary):

  • UTOPIA has been growing revenues at the rate of $10K/mo for over 3.5 years now. Most of that has come from the board mandate to aggressively pursue business customers. Almost every business service area in UTOPIA cities now has the network available, so most growth will now have to come from residential footprints.
  • Residential footprints are getting built out in Layton, Midvale, West Valley City, and Tremonton using a combination of RUS settlement funds and the remaining $24M from the existing $65M UIA bond. Priority is being based on footprints with strong demand. When two footprints have the same demand, the city with the lowest amount of completed network gets priority.
  • All new construction is covered by subscribers footing the bill just as it has been for the last several years. This shifts debt burdens away from taxpayers as a whole. Most footprints are seeing around a 25% take rate for services, exceptional considering that they have to bear the cost.
  • There’s nothing official yet, but operational expenses are very close to a break even point. UTOPIA will announce when that point is hit. Once that happens, there will be money to start paying bond interest. That may prompt cities to consider bonding for more construction money to be paid for entirely by subscribers.
  • Cities are finally past the “raking UTOPIA over the coals” stage and are starting to be more active in figuring out how to improve operations. Murray undertook an effort to reconnect homes that, while it didn’t accomplish its intended purpose, did improve revenues from that portion of the network. Payson has even started showing up at board meetings again with regularity. Even Orem, a city with some, er, “colorful” comments from candidates and elected officials seems to be turning a corner and is likely to elect at least one member who is ardently pro-UTOPIA.

This is the kind of boring, steady improvement that doesn’t make newspaper headlines. Heck, the Utah Taxpayers Association has been mum because they haven’t figured out a way to spin it into a new hit piece. (Also, because Royce Van Tassell is out and he seemed to have some kind of personal beef with UTOPIA.) These small careful steps are likely to be the future of the network, not some crazy moonshots.