One of UTOPIA’s biggest mindshare issues is defining how it is successful. We seem all too eager to jump immediately to the bottom line of if it is or is not producing revenues above and beyond operating expenses plus debt service while ignoring many other important metrics. Even when focusing on the financial aspects, we make the same mistakes that Provo made in not considering the entire net financial effects of the network rather than just the balance sheet. I think we all need to take a step back and redefine what “success” really means for UTOPIA.
Financial success is the most obvious kind. It’s very easy to look at expenditures and revenues and come up with a bottom line figure. I don’t mean to discount the importance of coming up with a positive number at the end of that statement, but it really isn’t the entire financial picture. (Take a look at my breakdown of Provo’s real and potential savings from iProvo for a good example.) Orem, for example, is saving somewhere in the neighborhood of $600K per year in telecommunications costs by using UTOPIA fiber in their city. None of the other cities have released similar figures (at least not that I am aware of), but I think it safe to say that they are experiencing similar savings. Such an approach also fails to recognize that incumbent providers are forced to offer better service and pricing to attract and retain customers. Based on national figures, a UTOPIA-served neighborhood is likely to save 25% or more off of telecommunications costs.
These two items alone can make up for any revenue shortfalls UTOPIA may experience, yet they are rarely discussed. This doesn’t even take into account the potential savings for any city-owned utilities such as Murray’s city power. Provo utilized their network to chop a significant amount of response time from outages and had planned to implement remote leak detection for the water system. Other cities can take similar measures to not only better utilize the network, but also to expand it further. To not include these items in the financial picture might work well for anti-UTOPIA groups like the Utah “Taxpayers” Association, but it has no basis in reality.
This leads into another metric for defining success: the level of competition in served areas. UTOPIA was born from the frustration that incumbent providers felt no pressure to deploy next-generation broadband services. With Qwest on financial life support and Comcast focusing on hotly-contested FIOS areas, Utah was destined to get the short shrift from both of them. UTOPIA put the pressure on both to offer substantive discounts to UTOPIA areas, something that has been independently confirmed by several people I know. Both have also been scrambling to do system upgrades to try and offer competitive speeds. Even a non-UTOPIA cutomer in a UTOPIA area benefits from the service being available.
UTOPIA can also define success by how many companies its member cities either attract or retain because of the network. During the rebonding hearings last year, I heard many stories from homeowners and small business owners that they chose to stay where they are or move into the city because UTOPIA service is available. Many more lamented that getting similar services outside of UTOPIA areas was prohibitively expensive and often not available. One company in Orem went from driving around portable hard drives filled with data to sending electronic copies from one office to another. As our production of and need for digital data increases, so does the need to easily share it between remote locations. Businesses recognize this and will choose cities that meet those needs.
Based on these metrics, can we say that UTOPIA is successful? I would argue that yes, it is. Be wary of those who would say otherwise as they are likely ignoring key pieces of the picture to support some ulterior motives.