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.

Why is it so hard to get TV on UTOPIA? There’s no money in it

Sourced from Wikipedia

Sourced from Wikipedia

Earlier this week, I sat down with UTOPIA to discuss the Macquarie deal and their general operations. One great part of these sit-downs is that I can get candid answers to some of your common questions. Some of you have asked more than a few times about TV service. Right now, only Beehive Broadband and Brigham.net sell video service to new customers using UTOPIA’s headend and Veracity is using their own. Most providers sell satellite packages to plug the gap. Why? Because video doesn’t make money.

Yes, it’s true. Video is a break-even product at best. Look at the numbers from any cable provider and you’ll see the same story: video and voice make data customers more “sticky”, but it’s the broadband that pays the bills. They’ve quickly become commodity products that help the revenue side but don’t do much on the profit side. The consensus at FTTH conferences is that video isn’t something that most of them want to do.

So what does this mean for you? Right now, you’ll have to fall back on satellite TV or pick one of the providers that does video service. Since Brigham.net is sticking to Brigham City, that means Beehive or Veracity. This doesn’t mean that all hope is lost, though. UTOPIA has been talking to its video partners about an over-the-top live TV service to plug the gap. It would be sold Netflix-style, but it would have all of your favorite TV channels and possibly some good on-demand stuff too. It’s a ways out (I’d guess years), but it’s where we’re all headed anyway.

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…

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?

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 passes from committee with Macquarie’s blessing

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.