The long knives come out: Tribune articles on UTOPIA

Bad news sells, and the Tribune seems to think that business is good. Over the weekend, they published a long series of articles on UTOPIA that follow the all-too-standard pattern of raking the network over the coals with many of the same rehashed arguments from years past. Four of the nine articles make reference to network debt in their headlines (often spuriously), and eight of them use negative references there. Despite the overly negative tone of the coverage (no doubt fueled by the opinions of the editorial staff), there’s a few pieces of useful and interesting information to be gleaned (not to mention corrections to be made).

  • Former Rep. Greg Curtis, the author of the Municipal Cable Television and Public Telecommunications Services Act, is now spending his lobbying time working for UTOPIA. He claims that the Act was meant to reign in cable systems, but not Internet services, an admission that the legislation was myopic in not seeing how all telecommunications services would eventually become nothing more than streams of bits. He’s pushing to amend the act to provide more local decision-making power to cities. Given Curtis’, er, controversial history, I’ve got some mixed feelings on this one.
  • One of the articles includes system maps for all pledging member cities. While they lack fine detail, they give you an idea of where you can expect to find service right now. UTOPIA says they’re working on getting a fine-grain coverage map up on their website so that you can figure out if your current (or next) home has access to the network.
  • Customers are pretty darn happy with their service, even if the voice and video options are sometimes lacking. XMission has remarked in the past that they have difficultly remembering how to disconnect a UTOPIA customer because it happens so rarely. (The first time wasn’t even a cancellation: it was due to non-payment.) The low churn rate, which is very much unlike iProvo, means that installation costs aren’t being lost and churn is thankfully very low. This spells out slow and steady growth in the future even without marketing. When aggressive marketing occurs, take rates jump; one campaign in Lindon took subscribers from 31% to 45% in under a year.
  • Centerville is the first city with 100% build-out. The only addresses that can’t get service are ones where the homeowners association or property owner won’t allow construction. In less than a year, the take rate is already 21%. Verizon was thrilled to see a take rate of 18% two years after building out FIOS in many neighborhoods. I wouldn’t be surprised to see take rates up in the mid-30s by late summer.
  • For kicks and giggles, one of the articles compares Spanish Fork’s network to UTOPIA, noting that the retail and wholesale models often produce different results. SFCN can only go up to 55Mbps (no doubt a limitation of using HFC), but the services are pretty cheap. (For what it’s worth, I’ve tried contacting SFCN several times to interview them for a post and keep getting ignored. If any of you has an in, maybe let me know?)
  • Like so many people who know jack squat about technology, the Trib tries to retread the old “obsolescence” argument and fails miserably. At a time when all of the major telecom companies are trying to get as much fiber as possible, it’s laughable to see that anyone would try to argue that fiber won’t cut the mustard. One of the more hilarious arguments is that 4G wireless services can be a replacement for wireline when the towers themselves depend on fiber backhaul to deliver those blistering speeds. I also fail to see how iPods, the transition from analog to digital over-the-air TV, or smart phones have any impact on fiber networks other than driving demand.
  • The “we don’t want to pay for it” crowd from Orem gets some more ink, though absolutely no attention is paid to the real cause: bad bets on sales tax revenues. I’m sure council members eager for re-election are all too happy to have successfully sold their scapegoat, but they are doing citizens a disservice by not explaining the nuance of tax policy.

Do I blame the individual reporters for getting many things wrong? Somewhat. I’m sure that many of them are having to make their articles work within the confines of the narrative approved by the editorial board, a group notorious for being anti-UTOPIA at every turn. The only news outlet I’ve seen be fair in their coverage, both positive and negative, has been the low-circulation Davis County Clipper. It’s exhausting to have spent years correcting the same arguments again and again and again, but if the press won’t do it, I guess I have to.

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