The Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency, more commonly known as UTOPIA, has been called a fiasco, illegitimate, the future of infrastructure, and a trust-buster. One thing is clear: the feelings on the telecom company are wide ranging, and have only grown stronger over its 12 years of existence.
In a nut shell, UTOPIA could be thought of as the internet’s version of an airport. Government funding provides for the basic infrastructure to construct the network, and private companies use the framework to sell their services to customers—much like how an airport is government-run, but private companies set up shop to sell tickets and send flights.
Just under $185 million in taxpayer dollars have been put into the UTOPIA project, but the project has struggled to attract cities to sign up for the service. Taxpayers, then, have been left holding the bag if and when the service is not profitable. West Valley City has taken the brunt of the budget short falls, having to pony up $3.4 million in taxpayer dollars.
Budget hawks, who tend to shy away from any government spending, loathe the project as an inherent overreach by government and point to relatively low growth, and only 60 percent of total spending actually growing towards infrastructure growth, as signs that the state needs to get out of the UTOPIA business and, presumably, let the system disband.
But UTOPIA isn’t the boondoggle its critics wish it would be. In the areas where UTOPIA exists, subscribers can expect download speeds more than twice as fast as those offered by Century Link (formerly known as Qwest) or Comcast at comparable prices. This is due, UTOPIA supporters argue, to the fact that the service is a pure form of capitalism, where local internet providers compete to provide the best service possible at the most competitive rate—as opposed to the near-monopoly that exists in non-UTOPIA cities.
“It is like you have to pay for the frame of a 10 story building, but only receive the funds to build five stories. People complain that the project isn’t complete, but you haven’t given them what they need to complete it.” Jessie Harris, long-time UTOPIA supporter and administrator of the independent website, Free UTOPIA, told Utah Political Capitol in September.
Lawmakers have struggled with the concept of UTOPIA from the start, unable to determine how much is too much when it comes to allowing the organization to bond in order to pay for expanding infrastructure. To that end, Representative Curt Webb (Republican – Logan) is proposing HB 60 – Interlocal Entity Service Prohibition.
The bill would physically cut off the expansion of UTOPIA by prohibiting the construction of infrastructure outside of member cities. So, for example, if demand for infrastructure increased between member-cities West Valley and Murray, construction could not take place because non-member Taylorsville and Unincorporated Salt Lake County lie between them—despite the fact that a mile separates the two city borders. By not allowing infrastructure growth in non-member cities, HB 60 all but guarantees the death of the project. This concept runs counter to how any network runs. In general, a business would provide service between two points and, along the way, expand service in the areas between.
Support or opposition to SB 60 largely depends on how one feels about government infrastructure spending in general. UTOPIA, it would seem, does offer promise as the next wave of infrastructure necessary to keep the state competitive on a global stage. If high speed internet can be delivered in a low-cost environment with numerous private company competitors, the benefits to the public and business are obvious. Furthermore, telecoms have not exactly been known to shy away from monopolistic business models that fundamentally harm free market principals.
But regardless of which side of the debate you are on, what ultimately makes HB 60 bad policy is that it drags out the situation rather than making a definitive plan one way or another. Either Webb should have the political will to put UTOPIA on the chopping block, or he and his fellow lawmakers should give it the tools it needs to succeed. This half-measure will only ensure that the service continues at its current pace, either delaying the inevitable or preventing the service from flourishing.
To contact Representative Webb, click here or call 435-753-2467.
Impact on Average Utahn:
High Impact 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 No Impact
Need for Legislation:
Necessary 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 Unnecessary
Sound Legislation 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 Clunker