What you need to know about the Utah Broadband Plan

Utah Broadband ProjectThe Utah Broadband Project recently released the Utah Broadband Plan, the culmination of almost five years of work paid for by a federal grant. This builds upon the Utah Broadband Map and a report on broadband adoption within the state. The report has four  main objectives:

  1. Strengthen and Grow Existing Utah Businesses, Urban and Rural
  2. Increase Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Investment
  3. Increase National and International Business
  4. Prioritize Education to Develop the Workforce of the Future

The first unfortunate thing that pops up is that the group that put together the report recommends against treating broadband like the utility it is, yet it also rightly calls it “infrastructure”. Despite broadband being more-or-less unregulated as it is and leading to no competitive choice for 25Mbps+ for 55% of Americans, they state flatly that regulation “would be costly and could result in undesired impacts including constraining industry growth”. This strikes an immediate poor response for the many Utahns who, even in urbanized areas of Salt Lake City, cannot purchase wired service that meets the legal definition of broadband.

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If Macquarie wants to win over cost-wary cities, they may need a new plan

macquarie_logo_2638In all of the city council discussions over the Macquarie deal, the conversation has been dominated by the potential cost of the utility fee. Even with the extremely high probability of generating enough revenue to cover the utility fee and reduce the bond payment, it’s all about what how much money is going to be collected from the cities. This has sunk the deal in about half of UTOPIA cities and looms as a threat over the ones that opted to get more details under Milestone Two. If Macquarie wants this to pass, they need to quash this main opposition talking point.

My projections are that this Macquarie deal creates a whole lot of money, both for Macquarie and the cities. Macquarie is operating in a very risk averse fashion despite this. They need to put more skin in the game in order to get current UTOPIA cities to take the deal and expand it across the state and the nation like they want. With their size and the low break-even point (35%-ish take rate), that should be easy to do.

Macquarie could alter the deal to eliminate or sharply reduce the direct utility fee. In its place, they should stipulate that they take 100% of the wholesale revenues until what would have been the utility fee is covered, then go back to the revenue split for any money beyond that. This would remove the possibility of cities having to pay anything for the deal and creates a small (and very remote) risk of them taking in less money than what it costs them to operate the network. There would be no way to scaremonger that the cities would be creating a huge tax on residents.

This is still a really good deal for cities. They eliminate all operational and maintenance costs associated with the network. If it doesn’t work, the only money they have to pay is the original bonds that they would have had to pay anyway. If it does work, they lower the bond payments. Either way, the network gets done, they eliminate the operational costs, and they get a completed network back at the end of 30 years.

There’s still downsides to this approach. Macquarie had planned to bond for 80% of the money needed to complete the build. The utility fee ensured that they could secure the best possible rates to do so. Without that kind of security, they would have to find alternate financing options or direct money internally to the project (and away from other projects). It could be harder for Macquarie to pull together the money and it will definitely mean that the revenue split for cities would be much smaller. It also means that Macquarie could end up not meeting their required ROI.

Maybe what Macqaurie could do is offer the cities three options and let each city pick the one that works for them. Option 1 would be the current utility fee with a maximum amount of revenue sharing to the cities. Option 2 would be no utility fee, but the cities have much lower odds of getting any kind of wholesale revenue split. Option 3 would be a lowered utility fee with a lowered share of wholesale revenues going to the cities. This would allow a lot of flexibility in how cities can opt in. It also allows Macquarie to at least partially take advantage of lower interest rates for the cities who take Option 1.

So far, Macquarie hasn’t played the politics of the situation very well at all. Despite a few big successes in the beginning, they’ve gotten their clocks cleaned in most of the cities that voted later and they haven’t been willing to accept that this is a full-scale war, not some alley fight. I’m hoping that they’ve paid attention and are willing to look at ways to keep this a good deal all around while defusing the biggest arguments against taking the deal.

Making the Macquarie deal better: things every city council should consider

macquarie_logo_2638The Macquarie deal is really good. I have doubts that UTOPIA cities are going to get a better offer at all, and the odds that any other offer would even have a chance of paying any of the existing bond debt are very slim. That said, there are things that all city councils should work on to make sure this is the best deal possible. Here’s what I think they need to do.

Specify speed increases on the basic tier

Including a basic tier of service seems to be a must-have now that Google Fiber has done it. I think the included tier is a pretty good deal overall, but the contract must specify a rate at which those speeds will gradually increase. The FCC already defines broadband as 4Mbps/1Mbps service. It’s rumored that they’re going to bump that to 10Mbps/3Mbps Real Soon Now(TM). I don’t think the basic tier should necessarily match what the FCC calls broadband, but it certainly can’t sit at 3Mbps/3Mbps forever. Make sure the speed increases are built into the contract, potentially as a function of the FCC definition (i.e. 75% of FCC broadband downstream speeds for upstream and downstream).

Specify increases in the transfer cap on the basic tier

A lot of people got riled up over the 20GB cap on the basic tier, but for someone who’s doing really basic usage, that’s actually pretty good. That’s 100 hours of YouTube a month or 30 hours of SD Netflix. Most people on the basic tier probably won’t be using very much anyway. That said, the cap needs to rise with time just like the speeds. 20GB is good today. What if it’s not good enough tomorrow? Make sure the contract specified that it will increase.

Require providers to fully disclose the terms of transfer caps

While we’re speaking of transfer caps on the basic tier, I think we also need to get ISPs to be VERY clear and up-front about how they handle the cap. The spectre has been raised that a hard cap could mean that someone loses their VoIP E911 service when the cap runs out. It could mean big overages. All of these terms need to be up-front. Providers should disclose if they have no caps, a soft cap (with the terms of the penalties for repeated overages), or a hard cap (with transparent pricing on purchasing additional transfer). Anything less would not be acceptable.

Require all revenues to pay down the bond debt and utility fee

City councils should already be prioritizing revenues from the system to go towards first paying the bond debts and then reducing the utility fee. Should. Citizens need to make sure that they codify that this is how they’re going to actually do it. This removes the threat that revenues from the system will flow into the general fund and the full utility fee will be assessed to residents. That would be completely unacceptable.

Try to assess the utility fee on users only

Cities are free to figure out how to collect the utility fee from residents and businesses. Macquarie has suggested “everyone pays” as the model. That kind of stinks since the entire point of the UIA was to shift costs from taxpayers to subscribers, but it’s a hard reality of how city finances work. If cities can get the net utility fee low enough, they should seriously consider assessing it to network subscribers only. In the unlikely event that the income covers both the utility fee AND the bond payments, those who paid should be first in line for rate reductions to be made whole. Once the bonds are paid off, those who paid should also be first in line for reaping the benefits.

Conclusions

City councils are the ones ultimately in the drivers seat on these items. The first three need to be hammered out in the Milestone Two proposal. It’s entirely possible that some of them have already brought up one or more of these points. The final two, however, are entirely up to them. And it’s entirely up to you to let them know that’s what you want too.

What’s in it for Macquarie? Understanding why they want a good deal for the cities too

macquarie_logo_2638A pretty common accusation I’ve seen lately is that Macquarie is looking to lock up UTOPIA cities in a contract to make a guaranteed buck. After seeing fly-by-night operators like Broadweave and the almost comically underqualified attempts by FirstDigital (let’s not even get into HomeNet), I can’t blame someone for being just a bit cynical. Once you understand what they’re after, it makes it clear why they need the cities to win for them to win.

Based on the amount Macquarie will collect under the utility fee, the rate of return is somewhere between 3.7% and 4.7% less expenses for operating and maintaining the network. This barely keeps up with inflation, so a lot of the profit depends on getting a healthy take rate for the network. They actually have a strong financial incentive to make sure the network succeeds or they may barely break even.

They are also a VERY large company with over $140B in assets. They’re used to doing multi-billion dollar projects like toll roads, airports, and other infrastructure projects. This investment of $300-400M is relatively small. For an entry into telecommunications networks to work for them, they need to scale up. This means getting other cities on board. The only way that can happen is if the projects have a high likelihood of breaking even or better. UTOPIA cities are stuck with their existing bonds, but the deal is to generate enough revenue to cover Macquarie’s utility fee and have money to reduce the amount charged to residents for bond service. Cities without existing bonds will want to end up padding city coffers to take the deal.

There’s also a much longer term opportunity here for Macquarie. If they do a good job at operating and maintaining the network, they may be asked to continue doing so at the end of the 30 year deal.  It could also open up opportunities for them to take a similar role as a network management company for other networks across the country. For a company that’s focused on stable long-term returns for investors, not the quick buck, this is a dream position to be in.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, this is a small bet that Macquarie wants to use to sell this plan to other cities. If they don’t do a good job and make it no or low cost to new cities, that won’t happen. It could also result in reputation loss in their other market segments, something a highly conservative investment bank wouldn’t want to be caught up in. So will Macquarie act in the best interests of the cities? Yes. Because they have to.

Econowest Associates report for Utah Taxpayers Association makes huge mistakes, omissions

Utah Taxpayers AssociationAs if the hyperbolic uNOpia site wasn’t light enough on facts, the Utah Taxpayers Association also commissioned a report that repeats many of the same mistakes. Apparently the hope is that by repeating the same lie over and over, it’ll end up being true. In this case, it appears that Doug MacDonald, who prepared the report, chose to merely parrot what his client asked him to. Let’s go through section-by-section and find the glaring errors and omissions, shall we?

Number 1 (pg 2)

  • Doug is making the same error of insisting on using inflation figures rather than constant dollars. This is misleading and no reasonable economist would dare do this. Constant dollars are the bread-and-butter of all economic analysis. Someone with his experience should know better.
  • The report shows 149K households, but Macquarie’s Milestone One report makes it clear that they intend to build out 163K households.
  • Macquarie will be contractually obligated to build, operate, and maintain the network for 30 years, but the report raises the impossibility of them abrogating the contract and still collecting the utility fee. He also hints that a future city council could attempt to break the contract, yet that would open the city up to massive liability. Apparently contract law is not a strong suit.

Number 2 (pg 3)

  • Doug claims that cities have considered not making existing bond debt payments, but there is zero evidence of this. No city in their right mind would default on any bond obligation.
  • Macquarie is assessing the utility fee to the cities who are free to figure out the most equitable way to collect it. The report, however, claims that the fee is mandatory for every resident. This makes no mention of Provo’s utility fee which is scaled so that businesses pay more and residents pay less or the planned waivers for indigent households.
  • The report makes the absurd statement that anyone who doesn’t have UTOPIA either loves their existing service or doesn’t want any kind of telecommunications service. This is despite the readily available evidence that consumers absolutely hate incumbent providers. There was apparently no effort made to do any kind of survey, scientific or otherwise, to back this claim.
  • The waiver for the indigent has been falsely characterized as a general opt-out provision. That is completely false.

Number 3 (pg 4)

  • Macquarie has committed to investing around $300M in building out UTOPIA, yet the report hand-wrings that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to find the money. Macquarie is an investment bank with $140B in assets, so I’m pretty sure they’ve got the money around there somewhere.
  • The take rate figures provided in the report are completely inaccurate and measure the entire city as opposed to areas actually passed with fiber and able to be hooked up. There’s also no comparison to iProvo which achieved a 35% take rate with no install fee, a ubiquitous build, and terrible service providers.
  • The “break even” mentioned in the report is way off. A wash on the Macquarie deal is around 35%. Covering all of the existing bond service as well is in the 55% range.

Number 4 (pg 5)

  • Every ISP has committed to participate in the included basic tier of service, yet the report spreads more fear, uncertainty, and doubt about their participation. It’s obvious that Doug didn’t talk to a single one of them about this. I know for a fact that XMission, SumoFiber, Veracity, and WebWave are on the record with being strongly in support.
  • Of the ISPs on UTOPIA, most of them do not provide services over other methods of transport. Those that do are often looking to get away from doing so. XMission converts DSL customers to UTOPIA. Veracity has gone so far as to build their own fiber to CenturyLink cabinets to get off of their transport. The idea that they will sell their service over competing infrastructure is not based in reality.
  • The utility fee covers connecting the network to each address. The $50 reimbursement to ISPs is to cover any installation costs beyond that. ISPs do not have to front any money to hook up basic service customers.
  • Doug again asserts that cities may choose to default on their existing debt obligations, a scenario that no city in their right mind would ever attempt.
  • Macquarie has experience with telecommunications systems in Asia and is partnering with some of the biggest names in fiber optics such as Alcatel Lucent and Fujitsu. This is not going to be a project run by rank amateurs.
  • The report cites a failed toll road project in San Diego to try spreading fear that Macquarie would walk away from a project, but the details, as usual, are much more complex. The project went through a Chapter 11 filing in which Macquarie had to write off their interest in the road, yet the road continued to operate.

Number 5 (pg 7)

  • Macquarie has never stated that people will not need premium services. Even if lines will not be fully utilized, there is a huge demand for service provider alternatives just to get away from the terrible service provided by incumbent operators.
  • Again, the utility fees are assessed by Macquarie to the cities and it is up to the cities to determine who pays what. Provo has already implemented a model where businesses pay a lot more than residents. Concern trolling to scare residents isn’t serious research at all.

Number 6 (pg 8)

  • Evaluating the cost to sell or shut down the network is a farce. In either event, the bond reportedly becomes callable meaning that the entire amount is due immediately. Treating that as a realistic option doesn’t even make any sense.
  • No evaluation of the probable value of the network was done. Instead, Doug pulled two numbers out of a hat: the $1 “sale” price of iProvo and the $86M in assets reported by UTOPIA.
  • The “sunk cost” argument depends heavily on the fabricated “needed investment” and fallacious take rate estimates from number 3. As such, it can’t be considered a serious argument at all since the underlying assumptions are bad.

Number 7 (pg 9)

  • The debt amounts cited in the Econowest report do not appear anywhere in the Milestone One report, yet it claims that they do. In fact, the Milestone One report makes it very clear that the principal and interest currently totals around $500M. This amount is in line with $185M of bonds over 30 years at a nominal interest rate. How that gets inflated to $335M is beyond me.
  • Doug again screws up by claiming that UTOPIA debt is 69% of the level of state debt, yet the state debt of $35.7B works out to almost ten times the amount he claims. This is something easily discoverable with Google in about 30 seconds.

Number 8 (pg 10)

  • Just like the auditor’s report it cites, this one fails to draw any distinctions between current and former management.
  • Doug completely fails to consider any argument on the economics of utilities and trots out a “private sector” argument with no supporting evidence. I’ll just leave this piece on why he’s wrong right here.

Conclusions

This report is sloppy and unprofessional, something that should be embarrassing for someone of Mr. MacDonald’s experience. There’s ample concern trolling and FUD on points that have been settled. Basic figures are completely incorrect and unsourced. Absolutely no effort was put into doing research to back up the conclusions. This amateurish work doesn’t read at all like it was completed by a professional.

If this is really the best that the UTA can come up with, I’m going to have a hard time believing that opponents of the deal are going to make much headway.

Lies, Half-Truths, and uNOpia

Utah Taxpayers AssociationWhen it comes to simply making stuff up, nobody in Utah can top the Utah Taxpayers Association. The latest effort, “uNOpia”, is no exception, a mish-mash of arglebargle designed explicitly to rile up low-information voters into a frenzy (you know, like they did in Orem last year). The arguments are about as smart as a sack of hammers and so very, very easy to pick apart.

  • Myth: The Macquarie deal is a $1.8B tax increase.
  • Fact: The Macquarie deal has an estimated cost of no more than $1,173.6M. The only way it comes up as $1.8B is if you add in inflation. Even so, none of the UTA’s figures factor in the estimated $1-1.5B in revenues to offset the cost, revenues that, shockingly, will also rise with inflation. The real cost of the deal is around $6.22/mo per residence after paying the existing bonds, a far cry from the no more than $20/mo per residence the city will be charged and less than selling the network.
  • Myth: You have to pay for the Macquarie deal even if you can’t afford it.
  • Fact: The deal includes a built-in waiver for the indigent. It’s right there in the Milestone One document.
  • Myth: UTOPIA will cut off your water if you don’t pay the utility fee.
  • Fact: Centerville bundles all utility fees and pays them in a specific order in the event of an underpayment. Right now, water is the last to be paid. The city council can (and probably will) change that. No other UTOPIA city has this kind of structure, and UTOPIA itself has zero power or say-so in this arrangement.
  • Myth: Elected officials have no say in UTOPIA if they accept the Macquarie deal.
  • Fact: The UTOPIA and UIA boards will continue to operate as they have been and seats will be filled by the cities. Seats have historically gone to mayors, city council members, or executive staff (city manager, economic development, etc). None of this changes, and Macquarie will be bound to honor all contractual obligations of the deal.
  • Myth: Utah law prohibits the utility fee.
  • Fact: It was very clearly settled during the SB190 debate that the cities absolutely may institute this kind of utility fee. This is part of why the bill was killed before it came to a floor vote. In fact, The Utah Taxpayers Association gave a favorable recommendation to the exact same kind of utility fee in Provo to pay for iProvo.
  • Myth: Large tech companies don’t locate in UTOPIA cities or use UTOPIA fiber.
  • Fact: Mozy uses UTOPIA fiber and is part of EMC, one of the largest tech companies in the world. (Full disclosure: I work for RSA Security, an EMC subsidiary. They do not endorse my efforts here.) Overstock is dropping $100M on building a new Midvale campus. Symantec relocated its PGP acquisition from Draper to Lindon, a UTOPIA city. Tell me again how large tech companies don’t pick UTOPIA cities.
  • Myth: UTOPIA causes tax increases.
  • Fact: Non-UTOPIA cities raised taxes around the same time, and many UTOPIA cities did not raise taxes. There’s a much stronger correlation between tax increases and cities who bet a little too heavily on sales tax revenues from large retail establishments.

Really, their diatribe just goes on and on like that. A lot of it is basic fact-checking stuff that’s flat-out wrong, but they know those kinds of statements will rile people up and get them too angry to consider the real facts.

The best thing you can do right now is to make sure you show up at city council meetings, let your elected officials know you support the deal, and make sure you counter any of the flat-out false talking points the opposition will be trotting out time and time again. We’re really close to having this thing in the bag, and we can’t let up until the ink dries on the final agreement.

How does the Macquarie deal stack up against the other options? Very favorably

macquarie_logo_2638When evaluating if the Macquarie deal puts UTOPIA cities ahead or not, we have to figure out what the cost of doing nothing would be. As pointed out in the previous analysis, the monthly cost per household in the Macquarie deal will range from $11.48 on the high end to $0.96 on the low end. Staying the course is actually a lot more expensive than taking the deal. Allow me break down the numbers.

The current bond obligations, including future interest, are around $500M. If 163K households make payments for 30 years, that works out to around $8.52 per month per household. This isn’t the entirety of the costs, however. Based on 2013 financial data, UTOPIA has an annual operational shortfall of $2,410,380. This is around $1.23 per month per household on top of the bond debt. This brings the cost of doing nothing up to $9.75 per month per household. But wait, there’s more. The network requires a hardware refresh about every seven years at a cost of about $40M a pop. This adds another $2.92 per month per household to the total bringing it up to a whopping $12.67 per month per household. Macquarie is offering a much less expensive option on the table.

So what about versus the cost of shuttering the network? Assuming that the network could sell for $30M (based on the offers made to Provo), you’re still left with a cost of $470M or $8.01 per  month per household. To hit the break even point with the Macquarie deal, you’d need a take rate between 33.5% and 38.2% depending on the utility fee. If you want to plug in your own figures for take rate and utility fee to determine the monthly cost per household, open up this spreadsheet and give it a whirl.

Staying the course is obviously not an option. Hitting a wash point with selling the network as-is seems like a bad one given how close it is to the same cost as the Macquarie deal. This is just further evidence that the cities need to move forward with Milestone Two and accept the resulting final offer.

 

Comcast has been holding out on us, but it’s out of tricks up its sleeve

Comcast-LogoWhen Google Fiber announced in Provo, it didn’t take long for Comcast to immediately whip out a new 250Mbps/50Mbps tier and match the announced price. The reaction isn’t all that surprising. They needed to look like they’re doing something to try and retain customers, and current modems meeting the DOCSIS 3.0 standard can max out at 343Mbps/122Mbps. Unfortunately, Comcast, in one move, almost entirely exhausted the available juice in its system without a massive overhaul of their operations. Could it be that they’re not going to be able to upgrade any further without a huge cash infusion?

Looking at the DOCSIS 3.0 standard, it allows for bonding up to 24 downstream and 8 upstream channels. This provides a peak theoretical bandwidth of 1029Mbps/245Mbps. Unfortunately, cable providers like Comcast have had trouble enough meeting the demand for 8 downstream and 4 upstream channels. With hundreds of channels (many now in HD), reclaiming spectrum has been very tricky. Despite tricks such as headend upgrades to H.264 (and, soon, H.265), using digital-to-analog adapters for customers who won’t upgrade to a digital package, and exploring IPTV, the system remains tapped out. The systems usually only support 6MHz channels across about 1GHz of total space or about 165 total channels. With nodes containing as many as 200 users, even a high 14:1 oversubscription ratio would mean dedicating at least 60% of the available channels just to broadband users, something that would crowd out their core TV product.

This is why Comcast has had to resort to very expensive FTTP upgrades to push their 505Mbps/65Mbps service in markets where Verizon’s FiOS has been chipping away at their market share. Even then, they want $500 to get service and charge a $1,000 ETF if you don’t stick with them for long enough. The hardware has also lagged behind with a limited number of modems that can push that kind of speed. Comcast also charges over $400/mo for the product, well out of reach of your typical user.

So where would Comcast do these kinds of upgrades? So far, it’s primarily in areas with only one wireline competitor that offers somewhat comparable speeds. To date, that means areas with Verizon FiOS. Tiers beyond 105Mbps haven’t shown up anywhere in Utah outside of Provo. Even there, Comcast won’t go beyond what their current 8-channel DOCSIS 3.0 deployment is capable of. Areas with CenturyLink DSL? No need to surpass 50Mbps at most. ADSL2+? 105Mbps is faster enough to keep their heads above water. Areas with gigabit fiber? Invest the bare minimum needed to get low-end users on the cheap because they know they can’t match the speeds.

What we’re seeing in Provo is all Comcast has got: pushing the system to and sometimes past its reasonable limits, and yet still falling woefully short. With a poor reputation for customer service and CenturyLink ceding markets, it seems obvious that Comcast is about to enter a slow bleed phase with very limited upgrades targeted at areas without gigabit fiber. Funny, that sounds a lot like what CenturyLink is now.

Not Just Copper: Is CenturyLink slowly withdrawing from the residential wireline market entirely?

CenturyLinkAlmost all of our broadband heartburn comes from uncompetitive markets. Even in areas with at least two wireline competitors (which is only about 95% of the urbanized Wasatch Front), you’re usually stuck picking between faster speeds from Comcast and cheaper speeds from CenturyLink. I’ve already written that it’s looking like CenturyLink is going to let copper die without a replacement, but it’s entirely possible they just want to get out of the residential market entirely. This would be a nightmare for competitive choice in our state.

Do you remember the last time CenturyLink upgraded their ADSL2+ product? I do; it was 2009. The year before, they stopped doing FTTN deployments entirely, occasionally lighting a new FTTN node here or there. Most of the Wasatch Front is still limited to 7Mbps ADSL with real-world performance usually coming in much less than that. I know people in Sandy that struggle to squeeze 3Mbps out of that aging copper. It makes CenturyLink’s claims of doing their own gigabit fiber seem pretty hollow and underscores that their main purpose in deploying FTTN may have been to try clubbing competitors in the kneecaps.

Just look at how CenturyLink has been not responding to competitive threats. In Provo, Comcast very quickly pushed their system to its absolute limits with a 250Mbps/50Mbps tier that price-matches Google. What did CenturyLink do? Nothing. They haven’t uttered a single word about doing any kind of upgrades in Provo at all. Who can blame them? It would cost them tens of millions of dollars to go after a customer base that hates them. The ROI would be so far out as to be disastrous. It’s noteworthy that the only places CenturyLink has announced doing FTTH have been duopoly markets, places with a more-or-less captive customer base. Given their non-response to Veracity rolling their own ADSL2+ using CenturyLink cabinets, this isn’t too surprising.

At the same time, CenturyLink has been chasing down deals to build fiber to cell towers and focusing heavily on their business services through acquisitions like Savvis. These premium services command much greater profit margins and more stable user bases than residential markets, plus they can easily convince businesses to pay the full cost of installing the latest technology. Even when the fiber to cell towers goes into residential areas, CenturyLink has been noncommittal about using it to upgrade DSL users to better speeds or technologies. It seems very strange to not want to use the investment to upgrade other services. I’d usually say they just don’t have the money, but they just approved spending $1B on a stock buyback program, money that would deploy gigabit fiber to as many as 1M homes and businesses.

This all paints a very disturbing picture for the future of telecommunications where open access systems like UTOPIA aren’t or won’t be available: Comcast will be the only real ISP for most users, and cities who go with Google Fiber will be right back into the “fast vs cheap” duopoly they hate so much right now. This is one of the many reasons why I’ve been so sour on both Provo and Salt Lake City for going with Google instead of fixing the underlying anticompetitive problems in the telecommunications space. Why would you expect Google to be any better than Comcast when they no longer really have to work for your business?

Salt Lake City is About to Make a Broadband Blunder

This article is cross-posted at Beehive Startups.

I've made a huge mistakeSalt Lake City just can’t seem to make up its mind on broadband. Given the chance to join UTOPIA in 2004, Mayor Rocky Anderson turned down the offer citing “risk [to] taxpayers’ money”. His successor, Mayor Ralph Becker, similarly waffled, giving a response that neither closed the door nor endorsed the idea. In that time, much of Salt Lake City has been unable to get CenturyLink’s ADSL2+ service (with speeds up to 40Mbps down), often getting a meager 3Mbps on vanilla DSL. As a result, Comcast doesn’t offer the same high-speed packages it does in areas with better speed choices, sometimes maxing out at 25Mbps. The reluctance to make a bold choice to improve the city’s infrastructure has cost residents dearly.

Now it appears that SLC is about to double down on those past mistakes. Google revealed that they’ve been in talks with Salt Lake City to extend Google Fiber from Provo into the city. While Salt Lake City officials are claiming that “no tax dollars” will be involved, it’s well-known that Kansas City provided a lot of concessions to Google worth millions of dollars. Provo effectively gave Google an indefinite lease on the network for $1 plus $18.7M in closing costs. We don’t know what Austin provided yet, but we can probably take a guess. Google loves it some public funding but without all of that pesky partnership business.

And what does SLC get from the deal? Sure, they get gigabit, but not with great terms. If you don’t sign up during the initial push, you’re forever cut off from the network. Kind of sucks for renters and new move-ins. Don’t like how Google does things? They’ll be the only gigabit option in town. If Comcast and CenturyLink hurt enough, they could effectively withdraw from the market and leave Salt Lake City with a real monopoly. Can’t afford $70 per month? Too bad; there’s no alternative pricing plans like UTOPIA’s 100Mbps for around $35. And if history is any indication, Google won’t sign a contract with the city for longer than 7 years. They reserve the right to get bored and just turn off the network when it runs out. Compare that with the 30-year deal that UTOPIA has been working on with investment bank Macquarie Group. The only reason Google Fiber sounds good is because you’ve been in an abusive relationship with Comcast and/or CenturyLink for far too long.

Given the stark differences between how UTOPIA and Google Fiber operate, how badly Provo was jobbed on its deal, and how much better a deal UTOPIA was able to negotiate, you have to wonder how there’s even a debate about the choice between dealing with Google or joining up with UTOPIA. It seems that Salt Lake City’s elected officials, mayor and city council alike, are too cowardly to do what’s best for the city instead of what’s best for their next election.