UTOPIA Sued: Is there really a story here?

The Salt Lake Tribune reports that Chris Hogan, one of UTOPIA’s former execs, has filed a suit against the agency over violations of his employment contract. The suit alleges that consulting firm TetraTech was awarded an improper contract for network construction because Executive Director Todd Marriott’s brother is a manger there. The suit also alleges that Hogan’s replacement, Gary Jones, is Marriott’s neighbor.┬áNow I’ve got friends on both sides of this, so this is where I tread very, very lightly.

I can’t speak to Mr. Jones’ qualifications, but I do know that UTOPIA has done plenty of business with TetraTech in the past. They are also a very large multi-national corporation with offices across the world, including two here in Salt Lake County. Even with the blood relationship between the Marriotts, I don’t see that this would necessarily disqualify TetraTech from being a candidate, especially if the work they did in the past was up-to-par.

UTOPIA has also told me that Hogan’s contract was up for renewal and they opted to not renew it. Obviously, I don’t have any details beyond that, but the timing does seem to coincide with my recollection of when he was brought on. Assuming an annual contract, the timing would likely fit.

The Tribune, however, doesn’t dive into any of this background to provide essential context here. I also noticed that they did not include any statements from UTOPIA to provide balance to the story, though I imagine with pending litigation, they can’t really say too much anyway. This is the far too common behavior I’ve come to expect from Utah’s major media outlets when it comes to UTOPIA. They present very one-sided stories and practically cheerlead for UTOPIA’s failure from the editorial pages. There are two sides to every story, but outlets like the Tribune and Deseret “News” are only concerned with the doom-and-gloom side that moves papers.

The AT&T/T-Mobile Merger and Competitive Markets

Today, it was announced that AT&T plans to buy up T-Mobile for a cool $39B. This would combine both nationwide GSM providers into the single largest wireless company in the country and bump us down to three such companies. A lot of fiber naysayers like to point to wireless as an example of robust telecommunications competition in the country, but, ignoring the wide gulf of differences between wireless and wireline telecommunications, how can we have a competitive market with just three nationwide carriers?

I’d argue that we can’t. Sprint will continue to be a bit player in the space since they don’t have much in the way of wireline assets and Clear is a boat anchor around their neck. Smaller and largely regional cell providers like Cricket and US Cellular don’t get the hot devices people want and often get chained down in pre-paid pricing plans. The MVNOs live and die by the terms set by larger carriers. The big companies sit on a mountain of unused spectrum which prevents new entrants to the market from even taking hold.

In short, we’re witnessing the wireless space do the exact same things that make us hate the wireline space. This merger will mean higher prices, less consumer choice, and more regulatory capture than ever. Sadly, I expect the same thing to happen that always does when a bad deal is put before the regulators: the state PUCs and PSCs will hand-wring and sign off on what they know is a bad deal using conditions that they know either won’t be met or would have been anyway, and the FCC will just rubber-stamp the decision with minimal oversight or review. And the whole time, we’ll be told that it’s a good deal for consumers.

Salt Lake Tribune Employs Cable Industry Shill to Review UTOPIA Plan

The Salt Lake Tribune ran an article today about UTOPIA’s new business plan in which a Mr. Ron Rizzuto continually discounted it. The article cites that Mr. Rizzuto is a professor at the University of Denver; this is true. What is omitted, though, is much more telling. Mr. Rizzuto is a senior fellow at The Cable Center, an organization funded by the cable industry. Not only that, Comcast’s Executive Vice President, David L. Cohen, is a member of the organization’s board.

It’s not surprising that a cable industry shill would attempt to trash UTOPIA in the press. It’s not even surprising that he would attempt to portray himself as a dispassionate and disinterested third party. Both of these have been done time and time again, like when Heartland Institute’s Steven Titch did consulting work for Qwest and claimed it had no bearing on his harsh criticisms for iProvo and UTOPIA. If anything, I automatically expect some kind of conflict of interest to emerge from parties opposed to UTOPIA as so many of them will always act in their own financial best interests. (Utah Taxpayer’s Association, I’m looking at you.)

What is surprising, shameful, and downright embarrassing is that the Salt Lake Tribune didn’t spend the entire 2 minutes on Google required to find all of this out. Even if they did, they chose not to disclose it in their article. One of two things happened: they were either negligent in their journalistic duties or (and this is more likely) they are continuing to advance the position of the editorial board that UTOPIA cannot succeed. Whichever it is, I am deeply unimpressed.

Utah Taxpayers Association Spews More Lies

Several UTOPIA member cities are gearing up to start taking votes on the new Utah Infrastructure Agency designed to help fund new construction of the network. The Utah Taxpayers Association is trying to get people to show up at these meetings to protest the UIA and try and kill it. In their effort to do so, they continue to distort, twist, and outright lie in their efforts to rile people up.

First off, the UIA bonds are not an unconditional loan. They are funds that will be secured by payments from subscribers. If there aren’t enough subscribers to secure repayment, the money doesn’t get touched. You would think that such an arrangement would be acceptable to an organization that purports to represent taxpayers as it clearly shifts the burden from the taxpayers as a whole to the subscribers. Attempting to characterize the UIA as a big grab-bag is a big lie.

Secondly, the UTA says that UTOPIA is running a $20M deficit in “operating expenses”. The problem, however, is that their version of “operating expenses” is entirely unclear. I’m betting that they chose to include equipment depreciation and possibly even the bond payments in that figure in order to paint a much more dire picture than actually exists. For all of the accusations by the UTA that UTOPIA doesn’t disclose enough information, it’s hypocritical and extremely irresponsible of them to distort the numbers for the purposes of supporting their arguments.

Remember the last time the UTA tried to organize an anti-UTOPIA protest? UTOPIA and its supporters showed up and ended up turning half of the attendees into subscribers. Let’s show them it can be done again. Centerville meets tonight (October 19) at 7PM, Orem is October 26 at 6PM, and Payson is October 27 at 6PM. All meetings are at the respective city hall. Let’s show the UTA that lying won’t get them very far.

It's not just XMission: Qwest hurting other providers too

Salt Lake City Weekly just ran a story on Qwest’s attempts to limit competition and it looks like XMission isn’t alone. The CFO of Fibernet, Lee Livingston, says they have also experienced getting cut off from newer infrastructure and getting their customers poached. Tellingly, the Qwest PR flack tasked with responding refused to dispute the accuracy of the recorded phone call with their rep, instead trying a weak sauce accusation that it had been fabricated or altered. (Hey Qwest? That’s pretty much an admission of guilt and makes you look petty.) Fibernet used to complain to the FCC about these problems and gave up after they got no results.

The short of it is that the new era of competition that was supposed to be ushered in by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 flamed out almost as fast as it arrived. Incumbents have been actively thwarting wholesale customers to lock the market back up while claiming that they still have sufficient competition. Open networks like UTOPIA are the last chance to correct this market imbalance. And yes, it will be expensive and painful. Most mistakes are.

Steve Turley Blows Smoke on iProvo and UTOPIA

Long-time readers of this blog (or those paying attention to iProvo) will recognize the name of Steve Turley. As a member of Provo’s municipal council, he’s been a consistent voice of opposition on all things iProvo since as far back as anyone can remember. You may even recall the recent series of articles in the Daily Herald bringing light to some shady-looking real estate deals and resulting lawsuits that he’s involved in. If you want to start iin the real estate industry I suggest using a commercial bridge loan to get financial help and get information to learn the business like this nick vertucci real estate academy review. I Today, he had an op-ed in the Deseret News calling on UTOPIA cities to follow Provo’s lead and dump their fiber network. Unfortunately, it would appear that Councilman Turley is about as knowledgeable as he appears ethical. Although there’s people that doesn’t have that much interest in the real estate, but actually just want to sell their house, for those people there we have business like needtosellmyhouse.com where we we buy houses from all nation and they can also just get help from sites like Flipping Junkie online, which is an easy way to sell or buy your house without doing all the work.

The biggest surprise is that Turley claimed the sale of iProvo is a success, this in spite of voting against both the sale to Broadweave and Veracity’s subsequent takeover of Broadweave. I have a hard time swallowing Turley’s characterization given that Broadweave spent sixteen months doing a terrible job at running the network (just like I said they would) before Veracity stepped in to save their hide. Even so, Provo had to loan out more money to Veracity to make the deal work. Veracity has done a superb job at turning around operations, but they have also had to cross-subsidize the network from their other operations and may continue to do so for several years. The reality is that this is the best the council could come up with since they did not have the stomach to do what was necessary to run the network successfully as a city department. It is absolutely absurd that Turley thinks he could vote against these outcomes and still be able to claim responsibility for them.

There’s also the wildly inaccurate claim that Provo solicited bids to buy the network. That’s absolutely and patently false. (I’d go so far as to call it utter bulls–t, much like the rest of his arguments.) The sale of the network came as a total surprise to the general public, service providers, industry watchers, and even the entire municipal council. The Mayor himself, the architect of the Broadweave deal, was adamant that a sale wasn’t on the table up until a couple of months before unveiling it. This was during the time that Billings and Broadweave were busy negotiating the terms of the deal. There was no clear RFP for bids, no public bidding process, and a very short period in which to review the terms of the deal. Does that sound like hanging a “For Sale” sign to you. I recommend Ball realty which is a pacific pines real estate agency on the gold coast, you can call them for assistance.

Turley has also wildly distorted the cost of building iProvo. Most of the main fiber optic rings were built many years before iProvo was even proposed. (I’d say planned, but I’m sure Mayor Billings knew what he was doing the whole time.) Those rings were paid for with federal grants so that the city could monitor traffic and improve air quality. That backbone certainly didn’t come cheap and should be included in the cost of expanding the network to include service to city residents. The $39M figure also does not include the shared cost of the video headend built jointly with UTOPIA. These items could easily add $10M or more to the total cost of the network, something that Turley has intentionally chosen to ignore.

Of course, these are just the factual problems with what he has written; I haven’t even made it to his faulty conclusions yet. Based on the “evidence” Steve Turley has presented, he thinks that UTOPIA cities should follow Provo’s lead and find a private company to buy the network. Unfortunately, that’s ignoring the marketable reality of the network. iProvo is a fully-built network covering an entire municipality. By the last publicly available figures, the network should have had little trouble being self-sufficient with some modest increases in take rates and small rate increases (not to mention better accounting practices). That makes it a very attractive target for acquisition, especially since the network was ready to roll.

UTOPIA, on the other hand, has patchy coverage and needs a lot of significant investment to cover its intended service areas. It’s main asset is the fiber running from Portland to Las Vegas, but even that isn’t valued at enough to pay off the current debts. UTOPIA cities, if they sold today, would still be making most of the payments and getting nothing in return for it. Provo, on the other hand, got someone else to assume the full debt load while walking away from it. Do these sound like similar situations to you? Me neither.

He also characterizes the new $60M bond proposal as additional system debt, just like the Utah “Taxpayers” Association has been doing. This, again, flies in the face of reality. The entirety of the $60M bond would be paid for by system subscribers, not the cities or UTOPIA. Claiming that signing on to this plan creates an additional burden systemwide is uninformed drivel.

In summation, Steve Turley knows about as much about municipal broadband now as he did two years ago. Unfortunately, that knowledge wouldn’t fill a thimble. Councilman, do us all a favor and go back to your home planet. Maybe they’ll be more accepting of your Reality Distortion Field.

Payson Bunts, Delays Voting on Joining the UIA

Unsurprisingly, Payson is hand-wringing over joining the new Utah Infrastruture Agency over financial concerns. On Wednesday, the city council opted to put off making a decision until August 4 as they worried openly both about the cost and how much say they would have in the new agency. Payson is about 30% connected and city leaders feel like if they don’t join, they won’t see any new construction.

And really, that’s true. The UTOPIA money well is empty and until the system is operating in the black, there will be nothing with which to build. The UIA is an attempt to solve this lack of capital while not putting the cities themselves on the hook for more money. Given the tone that Payson is using, it sounds to me like they either don’t understand the proposal before them or are operating purely on deer-in-headlights fear.

It’s not surprising to see that Payson’s city council members haven’t developed any new intestinal fortitude since they tucked tail and made a calculated vote against the new bond two years ago. I personally feel like they’re repeating the mistakes of American Fork, jumping in with a lot of initial enthusiasm and not having the wherewithal to see the vision through. Any elected official who operates with that kind of short-sighted eye towards instant gratification can’t be counted on in tough times. To be blunt, they’re cowards, afraid to do what is necessary and acting in shameless self-interest.

Grow a pair already, Payson. I’m sure you’re wearing thin on the rest of the cities too.

The Smoking Gun: Qwest Caught Admitting That FTTN Eliminates Competition

Incumbent telcos haven’t exactly been thrilled at having to offer their lines at wholesale rates to competing ISPs, especially since landline revenues have been sliding into a ditch. While AT&T and Verizon can keep most of that revenue with a wireless division, Qwest has no such option and has struggled with making enough money to either reduce its staggering debt load or upgrade its network. Instead of offering, say, good service or a product that people want to buy, they instead figured out that rolling out FTTN would let them claim to no longer have a copper plant to share. Of course, they don’t admit so much in public, instead insisting that other ISPs are just too incompetent (heh) to handle their shiny new pipes.

Well, Xmission has called them on it with a recording of a Qwest agent saying flat-out that the point of FTTN has been to eliminate competition and bring all of those customers in-house. It’s pretty damning evidence that Qwest doesn’t want to compete based on the products and services they offer, but rather on locking out competition. Is it any wonder that we have fewer ISPs today than we did in 1997 and that the few remaining ones are on UTOPIA as a means of survival?

Utah Taxpayers Association Holding an Anti-UTOPIA Rally

Not content to pen astroturf editorials and send deceptive last-minute postcards, the Utah “Taxpayers” Association has plans to hold an anti-UTOPIA rally in Orem on July 13. The BBQ/carnival (heh) will be in Orem City Park, 300 E Center St, from 5-7PM. I’d encourage UTOPIA supporters to show up in a counter-protest to correct what will undoubtedly be a series of half-truths, hyperbole, and plain old-fashioned lying. And, unlike my challenge to a throw-down that went unanswered, they can’t exactly run away from you if you call them on it.

As always, be respectful and don’t act like a jerk. You aren’t going to win anyone over with an attitude. I’d like to be there myself, but I’ll be out of town on business.

ALERT: Qwest Lobbyist Eric Isom Running for Utah House District 15

I’ve just found out that Qwest government affairs lobbyist Eric Isom is a candidate for Utah State Respresentative in District 15. You may remember him from numerous city council and legislative hearings where he spoke in opposition to UTOPIA and would frequently pull legislators and city council members aside for one-on-one conversations. There are three other Republicans vying for the nomination in that district and several Democratic opponents. I can’t state clearly enough how disastrous it would be for municipal broadband projects in the state to have an unofficial mouthpiece of Qwest elected to a state office. Isom has said that he will either resign from Qwest or transfer to a non-lobbying position, but I doubt that it would diminish the influence that it would have on his votes or proposed legislation.

House District 15 encompasses the western half of Kaysville along with significant portions of Layton and Syracuse. If you live in this district, it is critical that you talk to state delegates and attend the state convention to oppose his run for office. Let’s make this fight a top priority for anyone supporting UTOPIA!