Google is botching iProvo, but will anyone investigate?

Google_fiber_logoA lot of people tend to turn off the critical thinking the minute Google comes to town with their Magic Fiber Elixir. I’ve already spilled a lot of digital ink on why I think it’s a bum deal, so I don’t need to rehash that here. What does need to be asked is if their slick online marketing campaigns and brand power are being used to avoid any level of accountability from the cities they make deals with. Right now, I think the answer is a resounding yes.

I’ve heard from multiple sources, some of them very close to Google Fiber, that take rates in Provo are not only well below Google’s expectations but below what Veracity had achieved while they still operated the network. The estimates I hear put take rates in the low-20s whereas Veracity had peaked around 30%. That giant plunge would be almost the entirely of the MDUs taking service from the last time those numbers were available. Part of this is to be expected. Google offered up a “free” tier of service for seven years to anyone who paid a pittance of a connection fee. In student-heavy Provo, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that this ended up being a very, very popular route to getting online.

I know some people are saying “so what? The network is theirs to make flourish or fail.” That’s not quite true, though. If you look very carefully at the contracts, the city has the right of first refusal to get the network back for the $1 that Google paid to use it. The odds of the city not exercising that right are extremely low. Citizens are still paying for the bonds via a utility fee. There is an immense public interest at stake here should Google decide to pull out of the business any time after the end of their seven-year obligation. When the city handed the network over to Google, it was covering operating expenses and the bond. A 25% hit on subscribers means going right back to propping it up from city coffers.

When the city owned and managed the network, there were monthly reports on subscribers and revenues broken down into segments. Once Broadweave came in (and was later acquired by Veracity), most of the numbers were sealed up as company trade secrets and the only public data was if the payments were being made or not. Veracity was more open that Broadweave about take rates and network challenges, but there was still a lot of data left up to speculation.

Once Google came in, the meager data dried up. I have little confidence that either Google or Provo’s elected officials (looking at you, Mayor Curtis) would give anything resembling a direct answer if asked, assuming they gave any response at all. Even worse, it seems that journalists who proudly proclaim to be the public watchdog aren’t going to even ask those kinds of questions, uncritically reprinting each press release as gospel truth.

If you live, work, or have any personal interest in Provo, you should pushing for answers before the city inherits another financial mess.

iProvo, the Media, and Fake News

Both the Salt Lake Tribune and Daily Herald have run articles about closed-door meetings between Provo Mayor John Curtis and members of the municipal council. These meetings included only a few council members at a time so as to avoid the requirement to hold open meetings. An e-mail from the mayor indicated that these meetings were to discuss a “plan B” for iProvo. There’s just one small problem: Veracity (or at least the C-level executive there I talked to) apparently had no idea the meetings had taken place until I called to find out what’s up.

I have a number of problems with this, not the least of which is the environment of fear, uncertainty, and doubt that this creates. You may recall that Provo had to have a number of meetings in the midst of Broadweave’s impending default to figure out what to do prior to the network being handed back to the city in worse shape than when it left. You may also recall that I had copious amounts of sharp criticism for Broadweave, all of which was based on the company history (or, more  precisely, the lack thereof), hearsay about the internal disfunction at the company, and confirmations that they had to continue to use a line of credit to continue making bond payments. In this case, Veracity is a company with a solid reputation, no reportable internal strife, and a healthy cash flow from other operations. In short, there is little evidence from that side that any kind of network trouble is in the works at all.

Unfortunately, the refusal to discuss the “plan” B and how likely or, in my belief, unlikely it may be in a public venue combined with a media tendency to puff up bad news (love you guys, but you do it way too much) has combined to create nothing more than a cloud of unfounded speculation and innuendo. While Broadweave was always tight-lipped about operations, Veracity has been very open with me and has pretty bluntly stated what they’re doing with the network: cross-subsidizing it while pursuing the only customers really left, the single-family homes. Given their strong presence in other markets, I don’t doubt their capability to do so. Selling millions of minutes of voice a month is much more stable than a thousand double-play customers in an insulated (and competition-free) housing development.

This kind of pessimistic journalism, while no doubt backed up by experience, is not new. UTOPIA regularly faces one-sided stories and unrebutted opinion pieces in all of the major dailies. The only paper that consistently seems to take their job of presenting all facts seriously has been The Davis County Clipper. This is simply unacceptable. There are a lot of people depending on the newspapers to get the story straight the first time, even if it means pushing back the deadlines so you can track down and talk to other sources.

(For the record, I actually agree with Royce Van Tassell on something: more open meetings are a Good Thing. I’ve been hounding UTOPIA for the better part of two years to toss more data out in the public. Provo shouldn’t resort to so much secrecy.)