The end of the road? It’s Macquarie or bust for UTOPIA

utopia-logoPart of the visit with UTOPIA was figuring out how they’re moving forward and assess the financial health of the operation. Unfortunately, it looks like despite hitting a number of financial targets, they’ve fallen short financially. Right now, they’re still running a deficit on operations (I hear around $150-175K-ish a month) and it’s not closing as quickly as they need to meet the home stretch of the UIA plan. Right now, break even is about three years out as they concentrate on business customers. Given that subsidizing operations isn’t an option, that puts them in an operational pickle.

They were pretty candid with me when I asked questions. The switch from focusing on homes to focusing on businesses came at the explicit request of the cities. Business accounts cost about the same to get hooked up as residential, but they generate about four times the revenue. Even small businesses are worth about two homes a pop. With limited resources, they have to focus on those specific areas to at least try and cover operating expenditures.

The biggest barrier to most businesses is the brand name. Despite offering great speeds at great prices and excellent SLAs, their PR kind of bites. (Shocking, right?) The limited deployment means it’s much harder to serve multi-location businesses, though service providers have been creative in using UTOPIA where it can be had. Small businesses are challenging because many of them want the reliability of UTOPIA over cable and DSL, but there’s not a cheap enough product offering for them.

There’s some bright news, though. They’re signing up about 60-70 new accounts per month without doing much marketing or direct sales. There’s been a marked increase in high-dollar products like gigabit and even 10Gbps circuits. Most of the cities (including Layton, West Valley City, Murray, Orem, Brigham City, and Tremonton) are using the network extensively for city operations and reducing their own internal costs. If you’re in a completed footprint, you can pay to get hooked up. If you already have the wire on the side of the house, they don’t even have to roll a truck to do it. And operational costs are much closer to being covered than they ever have been.

And yes, the silver lining is pretty thin right now. Despite all of the good things UTOPIA has done (building to ~95K homes with ~11.5K taking service, offering cheap gigabit, 17 service providers, etc), money matters. I support UTOPIA, but the stark reality is that without any money, it’ll die on the vine. It’s here because the early problems, including an illogical build plan, the Qwest right-of-way lawsuit, and constant legislative meddling, tripped things up right out of the gate

I’ll be blunt: either the Macquarie deal happens or we could be waiting decades for fiber to get to more homes. UTOPIA is pretty fortunate to be negotiating with a company that’s bringing a lot of mutual benefit including the cities retaining ownership of the network. If it doesn’t pan out, though, I think we’re hosed.

Confirmed: Macquarie tips its hand on details of the upcoming proposal

macquarie_logo_2638After hearing some of the rumors about the Macquarie deal, I’ve been watching skeptically to see how much of it is wishful thinking and rumor-mongering. I’m now seeing that almost all of it is completely true. Macquarie had a representative answering questions at the most recent Brigham City city council meeting (skip to 43:30) and he confirmed a lot of what I had previously reported.

Macquarie wants a 30-year contract with the cities to expand and operate the network. There would be no transfer of ownership of the network and the cities would retain the title to all of the assets. Their purpose in doing this is to secure low-risk (in their words, “boring, stable”) investments with a moderate rate of return for pension funds and life insurance pools. Their view is that because they don’t have the typically myopic view of most of the telecom market that requires a very fast, very high return on investment, they can approach differently and see the long-term effects. Macquarie is committed to building out every home (165K of them by their count) to a “service ready” state. I assume that means including all portals and needed cabling so that getting service is as easy as a phone call.

In exchange for the contract, Macquarie would assess a per-address fee to the cities. While they recommend a utility fee with waivers for the financially indigent, the cities are given full latitude to determine how this fee would be collected. They can’t quote specific numbers yet since they’ve just started to receive proposals in response to their RFQ, but I’ve heard numbers between $15 and $25 per month.¬†Macquarie would commit to providing the connection to every address and service providers would offer a free “basic” level of service comparable to high-end DSL or low-end cable. The service providers would not be charged a fee for access to these customers and would only incur the customer service costs. Word is that they view this arrangement favorably since this gives them a way to market 100Mbps and 1Gbps services to those customers.

Cities are actually going to get a pretty sweet deal on those upgraded customers too. Macquarie wants to make sure the cities keep almost all of the funds paid by the upgrading customers. These funds will help pay off the debt service and could be used to reduce the utility fees. I personally also like that the cost of UTOPIA will become a transparent thing. Brigham City is planning to leverage this universal buildout to switch to smart meters that will pay for themselves within 2 years and greatly reduce the operating costs of the city electrical utility.

Macquarie is doing a good job at keeping their ear to the ground locally. They were on top of Sen. Valentine’s attempts to amend SB190 from the floor and worked vigorously behind the scenes on both that and the original ill-conceived bill. They’re keenly aware of the perception of UTOPIA being forced on city residents and want to focus on showcasing the benefits of the network. They also took a moment to slam some of the woefully uninformed comments from the previous meeting by pointing out that they’ve been doing business in the US for two decades and have over 5,000 employees here.

The devil is always in the details, but so far this looks like a very solid proposal that’s win-win. The cities get world-class infrastructure and money to pay the bonds, the citizens get at least a free baseline of Internet service (with cheap upgrade options), and the rest of the state gets the potential to get gigabit everywhere else too. Macquarie also gets their toehold on what they believe to be a great long-term investment for low-risk portfolios, potentially spurring other companies into an overbuilding gold rush. I have yet to see anything giving me pause.

PS As a bonus, note that Ruth Jensen spends most of the council meeting continuing to concern troll on both smart meters and the free tier of service. She also comically states that DSL and cable are “good enough”, parrotting the standby line of the “you’ll take it and like it” incumbents. Jensen also goes so far as to insinuate that people actually LOVE their existing options, apparently unaware of how poorly they have been performing in customer satisfaction rankings for well over a decade. Her near-automatic gainsay reminds me way too much of the Monty Python argument clinic sketch.

Why can’t I get service when UTOPIA fiber is very close to my house?

utopia-logoA very common problem in UTOPIA cities is living near the fiber but being unable to get service. I’ve heard stories of having it stop 100 feet away, barely two lots. It’s pretty frustrating to be so close, and yet so far. So why does it happen? The answer lies in how fiber gets deployed.

You’re probably used to the idea of how copper plants get deployed. For DSL, all the phone company has to do is cut in a copper pair and call it good. That’s cheap and easy (especially since the infrastructure is already built), but it’s also a very different technology. Same deal with cable. Fiber requires a very specific build pattern with huts for the fiber and rings running through a deployed area. It doesn’t take kindly to trying to splice in a connection that wasn’t planned for.

Yes, this stinks if you’re right on the edge of a deployed footprint. But running fiber to include you wouldn’t work and would probably break the existing footprint.

Sen Valentine waffles on Amendment 2 to SB190

Sen John ValentineNo sooner did Sen. John Valentine promise to UTOPIA and Macquarie to withdraw Amendment 2 to SB190 than he started telling constituents that he hasn’t made up his mind yet. As previously covered, this amendment would keep Macquarie from doing the same kind of utility fee deal in new cities that it’s currently arranging with UTOPIA. It seems now that Sen. Valentine is dealing with UTOPIA and Macquarie in bad faith, telling them one thing while he tries to do another.

This means we need to keep up the email campaign to oppose it. In addition to hitting the Senate body, you should also contact Rep. James Dunnigan, the House sponsor, to let him know that you don’t want to support Amendment 2. The only way this goes through in a way to benefit all Utahns, not just those in UTOPIA cities, is if the bill is preserved as amended in the Senate Business and Labor Committee.

There’s only 13 days left in the legislative session. Make them count!

PS Yes, I have a GRAMA request in to see who’s been talking to Sen. Valentine about this bill.

Is the Macquarie deal really going to be this good? The rumor mill drops tantalizing hints

macquarie_logo_2638While nothing has yet been inked, I’m hearing a lot of rumors from multiple sources about the kinds of terms being discussed with Macquarie. While none of them will be out in the open until Macquarie finishes estimating the cost of network completion, this may give us some hints as to what to expect in the final product. Here’s what I’ve been hearing so far.

No installation fee. The install fee is rumored to be history. The network construction cost will cover getting the fiber to the side of the house. At that point, you’ve got maybe $200-300 in install costs to get it in to the house. Word is that Macquarie may work out the numbers to eat that cost to get people signed up.

Credit for any install fees already paid. You heard that right. If you paid the install fee up-front, that money will reportedly be applied towards the utility fee. Those who paid the install won’t be left swinging.

Construction completed in two years… or less. This one really surprises me. The plan is to complete the build-out of all pledging member cities VERY quickly. That kind of build speed would be incredible.

A free tier of service faster than Google. The utility fee is going to include a baseline level of service. The rumored speed is 6Mbps/2Mbps, better than Google’s current 5Mbps/1Mbps service.

A full build-out of the entire state. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. I keep on hearing that Macquarie considers UTOPIA to be getting their foot into the door in the US. Their reported intent is to wire every home, urban and rural, to gigabit fiber. Utah could quickly become the first all-gigabit state and have dozens of providers to choose from.

The cities maintain ownership. Yes, you heard right. When the 30-year deal is done, the cities still own UTOPIA. This provision would supposedly also apply to new cities that join up and maybe even the cooperative I’m working on (which would be the only option in unincorporated areas). That’s a pretty amazing deal.

Some of this sounds like it’s in “too good to be true” territory. Even if half of it pans out, I’ll be pretty impressed.

SB190 gets amended to slam the door on new UTOPIA cities

Sen John ValentineDid you have a glimmer of hope that you’d be able to get UTOPIA service in your city once Macquarie comes in? Sen. John Valentine just smashed it with a hammer. His floor amendment to SB190 makes it so that only current UTOPIA cities can use a utility fee to finance construction of the network. Any new cities that join would be unable to do so at all.

Why does this matter? Because Macquarie has structured the entire deal around it. If future cities can’t do it, they can’t get the same terms that Macquarie is offering UTOPIA. This could derail their rumored plans to cover the entire state in gigabit fiber with over a dozen competing providers.

Right now, the bill is in the Senate and will come to a floor vote. It’s urgent that you contact members of the Senate, particularly your senator, to tell them to oppose this amendment. Sen. Valentine is working in bad faith by not involving UTOPIA cities either in this new amendment or the original bill.

Click here to email the entire Senate body and voice your opposition! They need to hear from you.

UPDATED 2-27-2014 2:25PM: We won! Valentine has committed to UTOPIA mayors to pull Amendment 2. Now if it can just go through without any other trickery…

Rumor: Google Fiber is looking at SLC to block out a possible UTOPIA expansion

Sourced from Wikipedia

Still thinking that Google Fiber is your only gigabit option in SLC? Think again. I’ve heard from several reliable sources that Salt Lake City got on Google’s short list for a new round of expansion because of fears that UTOPIA would beat them to the punch (and possibly go into Provo as well). Macquarie is reportedly interested in expanding UTOPIA across the entire state and has particular interest in Salt Lake City since it’s the largest and most visible municipality. UTOPIA already has several fiber rings within the city it could use to fuel the expansion. If this rumor is true, it could mean that Utah would soon be not only the first gigabit state, but one with 17 separate companies competing for your business.

I’ve also heard rumors about details of the Macquarie deal that make it an even better deal that I possibly imagined. Once I get confirmation on some of the details, you’ll be the next to know.

SB190 revised: is the bill “fixed”?

Sen John ValentineI’ve been looking over some amendments that Sen. John Valentine has made to SB190 and it appears to be much improved over its original form. The utility fee is back on the table, but it does require that municipalities carve out exemptions for “economically indigent” persons if they can’t afford the fee. It also conveniently still omits Provo from these new requirements despite its large low-income student population.

The changes came after Sen. Valentine met with mayors from UTOPIA cities, something he probably should have done before even drafting the bill. It also cites unnamed “mayors” who initially pushed him to run the bills, presumably not from UTOPIA cities. I’d personally like to know who they were and why they would care what UTOPIA cities are doing with their budgets and bond debts.

One lingering concern I have is that “economically indigent” isn’t a defined term I can find in either in the bill or elsewhere in the chapter. The best I can find is in Title 77-32-202, paragraph (3)(a)(ii) where indigent is defined as under 150% of the federal poverty level for purposes of assigning free legal counsel. Based on the current federal poverty level, that would work out to $35,325 for a family of four. It’s unknown if that would be the standard by which all cities would be judged or if they’d be free to establish their own guidelines.

Even with the improvements, I still plan to speak against this bill. If it’s a good idea, there’s no reason to exempt Provo (thus providing an indirect advantage to Google). I’m also not comfortable with leaving terms undefined as a “gotcha” to try putting the original restrictions in place in another session. Finally, I don’t like the legislature trying to dictate terms to cities as if they are a super-city council. If they want to run the city, they should get on the council themselves.

Bill Alert: SB190 will be heard in committee Monday Feb 24 at 8AM

I just got a notice that SB190, the bill that could chase off Macquarie, will be heard Monday February 24 at 8AM in the Senate Business and Labor committee. Word on the street is that members of the committee have been getting a lot of emails in opposition (good job, folks), but we also should show up to speak against it. Make sure you spread this around so we can show up in force!

Bill Alert: SB190 also targeting UTOPIA, could scuttle Macquarie deal

It appears the legislature is determined to chase off a $300M investment in our state’s broadband infrastructure to appease CenturyLink. Sen. John Valentine is running SB190 which has been very specifically crafted to prevent any UTOPIA city from using the same utility fee that Provo has to pay down the bonds. Moving to a utility fee to provide transparency on the cost of the UTOPIA bonds has been a key part of the Macquarie discussions so far, so it could very well put the deal in jeopardy.

Just like with Rep. Curt Webb, all you have to do is follow the money. Since 2008, Sen. Valentine has taken $200 from the Utah Rural Telecom Association, $1500 from CenturyLink/Qwest, and a whopping $7250 from Comcast with at least one donation every single year. He’s heard from the incumbents; now he needs to hear from us.

SB190 isn’t currently on the Senate Business and Labor Committee agenda, but I’ll let you know when it is. If it passes, it could hamper the deal to have Macquarie complete gigabit fiber to over 150K homes and prevent them from expanding beyond current UTOPIA cities. Now is the time to contact the members of the committee and tell them to kill this bill.