The Legislature punts on new anti-UTOPIA bills, but for how long?

In yesterday’s meeting of the Political Subdivisions Interim Committee (listen here), legislators sought to get a deeper understanding of what the Macquarie deal is and how it works. Unfortunately, most of the meeting consisted of the Utah Taxpayers Association spewing out fear, uncertainty, and doubt while the Utah League of Cities and Towns corrected the many, many mistakes they made. West Valley City Mayor Ron Bigelow also spoke and did a great job of detailing how cities are putting an extraordinary amount of effort to solve this problem on their own without state assistance.

Worth noting is that the UTA made many very thinly veiled threats to sue to stop the Macquarie deal. It felt like they were using that potential legal morass as a justification for seeking more legal restrictions. HB60 proponent Rep Curt Webb (who co-chairs the committee) also spoke against UTOPIA and seemed to have learned nothing from the massive amount of national negative press he garnered for his efforts earlier this year. Fortunately, the committee shut down an attempt to work on a bill to hamstring the Macquarie deal. They were directed to speak directly to Macquarie to get answers to some of their questions.

Overall, it seems like the committee is content to watch things play out for now and is truly interested in learning the details of the deal. Since I’m sure they’re already getting plenty of misinformation from the CenturyLink-funded Utah Taxpayers Association, it’s probably time for you as citizens to email them and let them know that you’d prefer they take the hands off approach as well. Click here to email all of the members of the committee at once and let them know how you feel.

CenturyLink VP Eric Isom is on the Utah Taxpayers Association Executive Committee

CenturyLinkSurprising precisely nobody, it appears that CenturyLink VP and long-time UTOPIA opponent Eric Isom is a member of the Utah Taxpayers Association’s Executive Committee. Per their June 2014 newsletter, he’s currently serving as the Secretary. You may recall he also was roaming the halls during meetings on HB60. If it isn’t crystal clear now why the Utah Taxpayers Association is astroturfing for CenturyLink, I don’t know what it’s going to take.

Of course, CenturyLink has a lot to lose. With the announcement in West Valley City that Ooma will be giving away the hardware for free landline service, they could shed as many as 40,000 access lines and several thousand vanilla DSL customers who opt for the basic 3Mbps service. While that fits their moves to abandon residential wireline service entirely, it also cuts into the highly profitable business products they’ve been focused on for the last few years. CenturyLink could lose tens of millions of dollars per year if Macquarie completes the buildout of the network.

So what can you do to help?

I don’t think most people realize just how deeply CenturyLink is embedded in the Utah Taxpayers Association. Bring it up at every public meeting. Share this post on every piece of social media you can and do so often. Once more people realize the uNOpia effort is just CenturyLink protecting its turf, the tide will change.

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.

EXCLUSIVE: CenturyLink Paid For uNOpia

CenturyLinkWondering how the uNOpia site sprung up so quickly and with so much funding? Wonder no more. I have inside information that the payments for the entire operation come directly from CenturyLink itself. This isn’t too surprising since they rarely directly involve themselves in politics anymore, preferring to launder the money through hatchetmen like the Utah Taxpayers Association (who, of course, is heavily promoting the uNOpia site). Given how much CenturyLink stands to lose in the residential and commercial wireline market should this succeed, it’s no wonder they’re willing to spend thousands of dollars to try and upend it.

This isn’t anything too surprising after the confirmed involvement of the Utah Taxpayers Association in HB60 and the suspected involvement in SB190 earlier this year. Incumbents will stoop to any low in order to protect their turf and keep prices artificially high.

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.

Utah Taxpayers Association Launches Sophmoric “uNOpia” Site Opposing Macquarie Deal

Utah Taxpayers AssociationSurprising exactly nobody, the Utah Taxpayers Association has launched an effort to try and derail the Macquarie deal using misinformation, half-truths, and outright lies. Using the sophomoric name “uNOpia“, they falsely claim that the deal will cost more (when it is actually less than selling), that those who can’t afford the utility fee will be forced to pay it (when the deal includes waivers for the indigent), and that cities lose all control of how the deal works (when it’s all hammered out in a contract). The lies are blatant hysteria designed to whip people into an unhinged frenzy, exactly the same as they’ve done time and time again on anything UTOPIA.

The best thing you can do is make sure you show up at public meetings and counter the misinformation campaign paid for by incumbents CenturyLink and Comcast. It’s time for these hatchetmen to take a seat and let the adults in the room speak.

Is Macquarie a good deal for UTOPIA cities? The math says yes

It’s not very surprising to see Royce Van Tassell attack UTOPIA and its proposed deal with Macquarie. He is, after all, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, a group that receives contributions from Comcast and CenturyLink. It is surprising, though, to see him make up his own facts and numbers. A fair look shows that the deal is much better than Macquarie is willing to say out loud.

A lot of hay has been made over the requirement in the deal to have the utility fee rise with CPI. The criticisms, however, assume that the cost to provide service and the revenues from subscribers are both static. Why is it a reasonable assumption that neither of these things will also rise with inflation? It isn’t, so inflation is entirely a non-argument.

Royce also gets some very basic facts wrong about the deal. This covers 163K addresses, not 157K. Macquarie has stated clearly that the utility fee will include network refreshes every seven years at a cost of about $60M each time, but he’s claiming that it’s not included and that equipment refreshes will happen as often as every three years. Royce claims that upgrades will be incredibly expensive, yet 100Mbps electronics from 10 years ago were more expensive than 1Gbps electronics are today. There are so many errors of fact in his op-ed that it’s hard to take any of his conclusions seriously.

And so let me break down the very simple math of how the deal works and what it will actually cost subscribers.

Let’s take a worst case-scenario first. Assuming a take rate of only 30% and a utility fee of $20, the total cost of the Macquarie deal will be $1173.6M while revenues are estimated to be $1000M. Less $500M to pay for the existing bond obligations, you’re looking at a total cost over 30 years of $673.6M or an effective utility fee of $11.48 per month per address. That’s a lot less than the stated fee.

But what about the best case scenario? That’s assuming a take rate of 50% and a utility fee of $18. This brings the total cost to $1056.2M and total revenues to $1500M. Less the $500M for existing bond obligations, you’re looking at $56.2M over 30 years or a scant $0.96 per month per address. It’s pretty hard to get upset over a fee that small.

So really, it all depends on the take rate. The question is what take rate we can reasonably expect. Brigham City got a 28% take rate with a $3000 installation charge, but Macquarie will eliminate it. Provo managed to keep 35% despite having disastrously bad providers like MSTAR and Broadweave, but Macquarie has well-respected ISPs like XMission, Veracity, and many other local companies. If Macquarie achieves this take rate, the cities hit the “wash” point where their costs are the same whether or not they opt to go with the deal. That point is about at a 38% take rate. I’d like to think just about anyone can do 3% better than Provo.

Even at the point where the deal is a wash financially, cities still get a completed network with an included basic level of service for every resident. Comcast and CenturyLink will slash their prices substantially in response to the competition (at least 50% in Provo) so that every citizen benefits regardless of if they use the network. Even for someone with a very basic Internet connection that wouldn’t use the network, they would be paying no more than $11.48 to potentially save at least $15, a net gain. The cities also get a $100M annual revenue stream at the end of the 30-year contract, effectively making the worst case scenario break even after less than seven years of ownership.

Given the very easily attainable goals and the high likelihood of reaching them, it would be ridiculous for cities to not move forward with negotiations under Milestone Two. Or to listen to a naysayer like Mr. Van Tassell that’s paid to say the things he says.

Bill Watch: SJR18 asks the governor to work on streamlining broadband construction

Sen. Howard Stephenson

Sen. Howard Stephenson

Wait, the legislature has a pro-broadband position in the works? I’m as shocked as you are. Best of all, it’s coming from Utah Taxpayers Association President Sen. Howard Stephenson. SJR18 encourages the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) to work with municipal governments to improve the process of building broadband infrastructure in our state. As a joint resolution, it doesn’t have any teeth, but I’ll take it.

There’s actually some decent ideas behind this one. Permitting processes for construction can vary pretty widely between cities, pole attachments are often messy, and Google has made these issues part of their chief criteria for determining which cities they want to expand to. I also like the idea of laying conduit while the city has an open trench for other purposes, often the most expensive part of any build.

Of course, we shouldn’t expect too much from the actual implementation. Given the source, the rhetoric matches up perfectly with the incumbent pattern of “give us tax breaks and less regulation so we can do what we already were going to do, just with higher profit margins”. I wouldn’t expect that higher standards will be imposed upon providers looking for a streamlined process, nor would I expect said streamlining to benefit anyone beyond those with existing networks or an expressed intent to build them. The fantasy that it would bring in additional overbuilders is just that.

See Sen. Stephenson explain it himself and watch carefully for the code words.

Hat tip to reader Chris for sending this my way.

Was HB60 an inside play by the Utah Taxpayers Association? All signs point to yes

Utah Taxpayers AssociationOnce HB60 hit the wires, I was quick to file a GRAMA request to find out what kind of communication Rep. Curt Webb had been receiving on the bill. Most of it is angry emails from Utah residents, many of whom were not accepting Rep. Webb’s cut-and-paste boilerplate reply about “transparency”. Here’s what he wrote along with my comments on each part:

Somehow the bill has gotten mischaracterized in the public eye. I have met with lobbyists and industry people over the past few days. I believe that much of the misunderstanding has been cleared up, and you may see a few minor amendments to provide that clarification. If it did what is being said of the bill, it would violate all of my conservative free market principles and run contrary to my voting record.

Actually, Rep. Webb, we understand the restriction all too well. You’ve been had. Just own the turkey and move on.

The bill does not prohibit infrastructure expansion. In fact it addresses no other entity than UTOPIA. UTOPIA is government entity created by an interlocal agreement and the public asks for and deserves transparency and accountability of them. The bill requires that any city into which UTOPIA expands become a member city. HB60 is not designed to damage UTOPIA is any way, but rather to provide clarity and accountability to citizens who may be involved in that expansion.

When UTOPIA builds in a non-member city, it has to negotiate a franchise agreement with that city like any other telecom builder. It’s already on a level playing field. Non-member cities can enforce transparency and accountability via this agreement. The only distinction with a member city is that the franchise agreement has been negotiated in advance for the entire municipality. By prohibiting UTOPIA from negotiating franchise agreements except on a citywide basis, you’re making them play by a different set of rules. That is, at the very core, damaging.

Why? Example: We must keep in mind that UTOPIA is an entity composed of member cities. If an expansion were installed in a non member city, and problems with the network arose; who would the citizens in that area turn to? That user is not a citizen of the proviing [sic] entity. Their own non member city could say “We are not UTOPIA.” If they turned to UTOPIA for help, those member cities could say “You are not our constituent”.

We’ve already established that the franchise agreement gives the non-member city power to establish and enforce terms with UTOPIA. It seems like Rep. Webb either doesn’t understand franchise agreements or is convinced that unless cities increase their involvement with UTOPIA, they won’t enforce the provisions of them. The former is most likely as the latter is simply outlandish. Unless, of course, he’s conceding that cities don’t properly enforce the terms of franchise agreements with operators like CenturyLink and Comcast. That, however, seems unlikely.

The bill only applies only [sic] to government entities as providers, (iProvo no longer applies), and requires as a matter of government accountability to users, that expansion areas become member cities. Some already have.

The cities are and have been accountable to their citizens, member or not.

Email between UTA and Curt Webb on HB60

Email between UTA and Curt Webb on HB60

So I find myself wondering how his confused logic spawned this bill in the first place. Then I came across the one email not between Rep. Webb and someone furious at this bill: an exchange between himself and none other than Royce Van Tassell of the Utah Taxpayers Association! Most telling, Rep. Webb emailed Van Tassell directly and out of the blue to solicit their talking points on the issue.

Unshockingly, the UTA has the same fundamental misunderstandings of how franchise agreements work as Rep. Webb expressed in his missive. Van Tassell also alluded to the push coming straight from UTA’s president, Sen. Howard Stephenson. Don’t take my word for it: read the email yourself.

This is just the latest in the long and disturbing trend of incumbent providers funneling money into a sitting senator’s company to influence the legislative process from the inside while keeping their hands “clean”. How the voters of Draper can tolerate it is beyond me. It’s my hope that they’ll wise up to it and send Stephenson packing.

Local groups whipped Oremites into an unhinged frenzy

Tuesday night, the Orem city council approved a property tax increase to plug some budget holes. A lot of the people present (some council members included) chose to pin the blame squarely on UTOPIA even though that’s less than accurate. I wasn’t there, but the recap from Twitter made it abundantly obvious that the crowd had a lot more anger than information.

Who do we blame for creating an unhinged and uninformed angry mob? Precisely the people who tried to walk away with a non-chalant whistle: The Sutherland Institute and Utah Taxpayers Association. Both groups have been painting a picture of apocalypse from the tax increases while trying to pin the entire thing on UTOPIA. Neither of them discussed the shift from sales to property taxes that dozens of cities are currently involved in, nor did they try to inform the public with alternatives to raising taxes. This purposeful attempt to leave citizens uninformed created some of the wackier and downright dangerous suggestions of the night, things that both organizations need to now own as a byproduct of whipping the citizenry into a fenzy.

And what were these suggestions of fiscal suicide? Some people suggested either that the city wasn’t directly responsible for the bond or that they should just stop paying it. Anyone with any financial know-how knows that you can’t unilaterally declare that you don’t owe money on a loan or that you’ll just stop paying bills you don’t like. If the city chose to do that, it’s credit rating would be worse than junk and it would be a true financial catastrophe for the city. More than a few people suggested that the city declare bankruptcy over it. They obviously don’t know that UTOPIA’s payment comprises a scant 3.2% of Orem’s total budget, nor do they seem to get that the consequences would be roughly the same as not paying the bond. It would be akin to burning down the house because you found a piece of rotten timber.

Another popular suggestion is to sell the network, but this, too, is divorced from financial reality. At the end of the payments, the cities (and presumably the subscribers who paid for installation) end up owning the network free and clear. The only way a sale makes sense is if the sale price would exceed the estimated value of the network at the end of the payments. Anything less would mean a wider loss, and there is no sale that will cover the price of the bond. Evidence suggests that a sale would go poorly anyway. American Fork “sold” AFCNet, but the company that “bought” it hasn’t been current on its interest-only payments and will likely not have the required $500K lump-sum payment when it comes due in a few months. Provo tried to sell iProvo twice without success. Both of those networks cover their respective cities whereas UTOPIA does not have a contiguous service area. Odds are good that any sale would result in a substantial loss of value.

The core problem is that both UTA and Sutherland (the latter of which I expected better from) presented cherry-picked facts and fabrications designed explicitly to incite anger. This was done in lieu of presenting a full slate of facts (like the trend in dozens of cities of moving from sales taxes to property taxes), their proposed solutions, and a rationale for the conclusion. When you take that approach, you create a mob mentality problem rather than seeking solutions. When you call them on it, they back off with a weak “well, we didn’t mean that” which comes off as trying to weasel out of the situation they created.

You can see an obvious common thread from the suggestions and actions. None of them actually think through the full consequences of the actions proposed, they’re “shoot from the hip”, and they’re emotional responses to try and undo a decision that’s over, done with, and now has to be owned. These folks (citizens and think tanks alike) could learn more than a few things from mayors like Mike Winder and John Curtis who, despite not supporting municipal broadband, have accepted that their job is to make the best of the situation.

(You can read more from the Daily Herald here.)