What Happened to Prime Time, Straight from the Horse’s Mouth

When the Salt Lake Tribune published their story as to what’s going on with Prime Time Communications, they noted that they were unable to reach anyone for comment. Yours truly, however, scored a 40-minute phone interview with Bryon Wentzlaff, one of their VPs. From the sounds of things, it’s just one more example of why telecom is a tough business to break into no matter who you are. Prime Time hit a point where they were not making money and didn’t project doing so for the foreseeable future.

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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.

What does the broadband stimulus mean for UTOPIA?

Now that UTOPIA has $16.2M in federal funding, the question is what it’s going to do. The money itself is specifically to hook up “anchor institutions” such as schools, libraries, healthcare facilities, and government buildings. This money will be used to run fiber to over 400 buildings in Perry, Payson, Midvale, Murray, Centerville, Layton, Orem, and West Valley City. With those connections in the ground, it will be much less expensive to build out to nearby neighborhoods. That is, provided that your city joined the UIA and is willing to finance the cost of installations. A few cities are either in opposition to or on the fence about joining the UIA, so the fiber would stop at those anchor institutions. Time is limited to get them on the boat, so make sure you’re hounding them about joining.

And if you want to, go take a look at the original press release.

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.

Bye Bye, Deadbeat Providers

One of the more interesting parts of UTOPIA’s new plans via the Utah Infrastructure Agency (UIA) is to have cities start taking over billing operations directly. In the past, service providers operated all of the billing and then remitted payment to UTOPIA for the wholesale transport. That arrangement works well for most providers, but every now and again, you get an Mstar that racks up a huge debt to UTOPIA. While the step to diversify the video offerings so that no provider can hold triple-play over their head, it only gives UTOPIA a hammer to cut off the deadbeats, not a way to get their money. So, in an effort to make sure that UTOPIA always gets their cut and isn’t giving any provider a free loan, it looks like they’re going to consolidate billing into the UIA which will then disburse the money to both UTOPIA and the service providers.

I have some mixed feelings on this. Sure, it sucks when a crappy company like Mstar takes the network for a multi-million dollar ride. And it would suck if a company decided to not pay their bills for a month or two and leave UTOPIA holding the bag. I can certainly see how this improves the cash flow on their side. On the other side, billing is a way for providers to differentiate their customer service. I know a lot of people who have sworn off Qwest because their bill couldn’t ever come out quite right. I also wonder if providers will be hot on the idea of a third-party provider collecting the money and delaying the cash flow on their side. It also raises the issue of what happens when there’s non-payment by the customer. Instead of the provider having to pay UTOPIA anyway while they seek payment (or, more likely, shut off service), UTOPIA is left holding that bag. Granted, it’s a lot less than if a provider stops paying their bills, but it’s something worth thinking about.

In any event, this seems like an overall positive move with a few caveats. If nothing else, UTOPIA is working its tail off to try and protect itself from these kinds of financial problems.

Utah Infrastructure Agency Moving Forward

Remember UTOPIA’s new plan to shift the cost of the network from the cities onto subscribers? It’s been moving forward in the form of the Utah Infrastructure Agency, a way for cities to bond for construction without having to put taxpayers as a whole on the hook. So far, West Valley City, Lindon, Midvale, Layton, and Orem are on board with Perry and Tremonton deciding to sit it out. Other cities are still considering signing up for it and need to hear from you.

So what exactly does this do? In short, it’s the next evolution beyond the SAA used in Brigham City. The SAA model was to  find demand, form an SAA, and then get the funds to start construction. The UIA will, instead, get the money first, find the areas of demand, and then start construction once it becomes feasible. Just like the SAA, the subscribers that get hooked up under the arrangement will be the ones footing the bill. This speeds up the process of connecting customers while still continuing to shift the burden of supporting the network away from cities and onto those who get service.

To be quite honest, I can’t see why a city wouldn’t be all over this. There’s no cost to the cities to participate and increased subscribers will only decrease or eliminate the called pledges. Given the benefits to the taxpayer, that they are taken off the hook, you’d think the Utah “Taxpayers” Association would be all for it. (Fat chance, I know.) The good news is that any city that doesn’t elect to participate now can always reconsider in the future. If your city has already declined to join (or does so in the future), you can still pester them until they reconsider.

Note: While Orem was part of the founding group of the UIA, they haven’t taken an official vote on the matter yet. There will be a public hearing on Tuesday after which the Orem City Council will decide if they will join. They chose the new bond in a 6-0 vote last time around, but the UTA is holding their rally just before the meeting to try and pack the house with opponents and scare council members into reversing course. It’s very important that UTOPIA supporters turn out in force both at the rally and the meeting to thwart these efforts. I hear there’s going to be a fun surprise for the UTA during their BBQ, so show up and be prepared for a laugh at their expense.