Legislative Action: My Proposal to the Utah Technology Commission

I'm just starting on my journey to get the legislature to hear about the restrictions on UTOPIA, but there is already good progress. I've submitted some brief comments as a synopsis of why we need UTOPIA and why it is critical for us to expand it to unincorporated areas. Below are the comments I have submitted for the co-chairs of the Utah Technology Commission to review.

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Setting the Wheels in Motion

I've decided to step things up a notch and really get the ball rolling on changing the state law prohibiting counties from participating in UTOPIA. Yesterday, I got a notice that the Utah Technology Commission will be meeting on October 19th at 8AM. This seemed like the proper venue to air my concerns about the current law, so I shot off an e-mail to the chair of the Commission, Rep. John Dougall.

I promptly got a reply back from him guiding me to the right person to talk to, so I'm seeing if I can't get a spot on the agenda of the next meeting (which, as I understand it, should be November 15th) so that I can make a short presentation. I'm crossing my fingers that I'll get a chance to do so.

American Fork Outsourcing Fiber Network

American Fork, which has been operating its own independent municipal broadband service since 2002, has agreed to lease and sell portions of its beleaugered AFConnect service to PacketFront Inc. The city will retain ownership of the fiber network but will place operations in the hands of the Swedish company with stipulations that they maintain the contracts with current vendors. It already sold a portion of the fiber capacity to UTOPIA back in December.

What does this mean for American Fork residents? PacketFront plans to drop $8M on upgrading the network to support phone and TV service, something the city couldn't find the funding to do. As opposed to sell off the network entirely, the city council chose to make a deal that lets them keep a vested interest in the network without having to shell out for the expensive upgrades.

This is an important lesson for cities who want to strike it out on their own. By opting out of UTOPIA, American Fork shrugged off the benefits of pooled risk and got stuck in a situation where they needed significant capital improvements to make the system profitable, but because it wasn't profitable, they didn't have the capital. It wasn't very forward thinking of the city to not roll out "triple play" service and now they have to pay the price for it.

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FTC Report Shows Many Benefits to Muni Broadband

Among the benefits are increased competition, lower prices, and higher efficiency. The only con it can come up with is a weak sauce possibility that municipalities would engage in anti-competitive behavior. That's amusing considering how long cable and telephone companies have been abusing their monopoly status. The article also cites that HR 5252 would have protected efforts to roll out municipal communications services had it not been stalled by the Net Neutrality debacle.

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San Jose's "Free" WiFi Bogged Down in Access Concerns

A forum on San Joe's new WiFi system resulted in a lot of concerns over privacy, ID theft, rural access, and underserved residents. The bottom line is that WiFi is bringing up more issues than it solves. WiFi is never really secure (even WPA2 keys can be cracked relatively easily), you can't throw the signals far enough to reach low-population areas, and even making it free can't make people happy. The lesson to be learned is that the "free" service is exactly what you pay for: service is not guaranteed, you might have to purchase a signal booster for as much as $120, and the speeds aren't likely to be as competitive as cable or DSL especially when comparing prices. Sounds like San Jose is preparing itself to become Silicon Alley by not investing in the future that is FTTP.

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Fiber Being Installed in Small Indiana Town

The small town of Crawfordsville, IN will be knee-deep in fiber by 2007. The municipal electric company is installing the FTTP project which will be live by early next year. From the sounds of things, this project is going to be a single-carrier network, but it should provide some decent competition for the cable and phone companies.

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North Carolina Town Mulls Municipal Fiber

The town of Wilson, N.C. is currently mulling doing its own municipal fiber project. It has already built 30 miles of the network to link together city agencies and the city-owned utilities and sees the promise in a high-speed network throughout the town. Their major roadblock is that state law prohibits government from competing with private business. The solution they should be looking at is a UTOPIA-style model which has already been signed off on by the state's courts.

The most interesting part of the article, however, is citing a study done by Carnegie Mellon University and MIT showing the benefits of broadband. Communities with a high broadband penetration rate experienced job growth that was a full percent higher, larger increases in the number of businesses in their city (especially technology companies), and had property values grow up to 6 percent within a year of broadband availability. Yes, Virginia, the project doesn't need to directly break even to be considered an overall economic success.

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Home Fiber Installations Top One Million

Fiber to the home (FTTH) is now in over one million homes nationwide with an estimated six million that could be hooked up, the so-called "last mile" issue. Something significant is that while Utah only makes up 0.7% of the national population, it accounts for about 4.1% of the installed base for fiber, almost all of it belonging to the UTOPIA and iProvo projects. It goes to show that UTOPIA is necessary to keep us on the leading edge and maintain a competitive business environment, especially since Qwest seems to be doing a whole lot of nothing when it comes to fiber.

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The WiFi Dead End: Why Municipal Wireless Won't Last

For several years now, the buzz in Internet access is firmly planted around wireless technologies. From hotspots in coffee shops to WiFi built into Nintendo's latest handheld, wireless has proved its popularity through ubiquity. I have to admit, I'm always pleased to find free wireless Internet in an airport when I travel. Wireless, though, is not a long-term solution for cracking the cable and telco duolopy.

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Power Companies Leasing Power Lines for Broadband

While Broadband over Power Lines (BPL) isn't a new concept, it certainly isn't widely deployed. Power companies aren't keen on making major capital investments to support high-speed connections to their customers, yet those same lines reach 47 million underserved Americans who have no other broadband choices. Some of them are turning to leasing their lines to providers as a way to cash in without all of the risk.

While I can see that another major player in the land-based broadband market could help stir up competition, I can't help but think that the power companies will do exclusive contracts with a single provider, a provider that will most likely be a name we've already heard of like Earthlink or AT&T. If that ends up being the case, it'll be just another monopolist in the market providing only token competition without much in the way of true competition. This is especially so if BPL can't deliver equivalent or superior speeds when compared to cable and DSL offerings. I fear this will be another "me too" technology that won't solve our duopoly problems.

Again, it becomes more and more clear that our best alternatives lie in municipal fiber projects like UTOPIA that provide open access to a wide range of competitors at superior speeds and competitive pricing.

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