Did 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…
Almost 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?
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.
On a 4-0-3 vote, SB190 was amended and passed from the Senate Business and Labor Committee this morning. XMission founder Pete Ashdown and myself both spoke in opposition to the bill while Macquarie themselves endorsed the amended bill. Layton sent Gary Crane to represent them to oppose the unamended bill and support the amended bill. It now goes to the second calendar of the Senate for its first floor vote.
During the bill presentation, Sen. Valentine explained the rationale behind the bill as a potential ambiguity in the state code. As currently worded, it prohibits any subsidy of a municipal network by the city. His interpretation is that this could include a utility fee that covers existing bond debt but not operating expenses. Naturally, I disagree and think it’s silly to call paying your debts a subsidy. All the same, the state code now explicitly states that it’s not a subsidy provided that there’s a plan to waive the fee for the indigent.
Speaking of that provision, I found out that it was something the cities were all planning on doing anyway. In the end, SB190 codified what cities were already doing on their own, but only after first attempting to kill the Macquarie deal without input from UTOPIA cities. Kind of a useless bill if you ask me.
This doesn’t mean it’s all a done deal, however. The bill also needs to be voted on in the Senate, go to a House committee, then get voted on in the House. Amendments to the bill could be proposed at any step. Right now, the best thing you can do is email your legislators and make sure they’ll accept the bill as-is so we don’t get anything worse.
I’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.
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!
Salt 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.
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.