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Cities should provide fiber infrastructure
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

By pete ashdown

UTOPIA's financial audit by the state has revealed what many have suspected for years, that it is not profitable. Yet what form of infrastructure is?

UTOPIA provides broadband service in 11 Utah cities. Today, communication infrastructure is no less critical than transportation, sanitation and clean water. Government is not a business, but the infrastructure it provides contributes to a robust business environment.

Consider how private businesses rely on government funded infrastructure. Why don't entrepreneurs clamor to build the next generation of roads? Why don't airline companies get off the public dole and build their own facilities? Why are sewer facilities so rarely handled by anyone else but the state?

Does effective infrastructure cost? Considerably. Does it make a profit? No.

I admit that I was overly optimistic towards UTOPIA's acceptance rate when it was being pitched in 2004. Yet the primary criticism of UTOPIA now is not that it is a defective network, but that it was supposed to be free of cost.

As the president of Utah's first Internet provider, XMission, and an original UTOPIA participant, I have paid considerable wholesale rates to support this network. However, I have seen financial shenanigans by other providers which should not have been tolerated past 30 days.

This fiscal mismanagement, combined with baseless legal attacks by the entrenched incumbents, Century Link and Comcast, have made providing advanced data infrastructure to Utah an uphill battle. Some are calling for dissolution of the network and defaulting on the loans. They have declared UTOPIA an outright failure because it has not turned a profit.

Google Fiber in Kansas City has been highlighted as an example of how private industry can do it better. However, we now know that Kansas City has given considerable concessions to Google in order to win its favor.

The search engine giant was granted free access to almost everything the city owns, including rights of way, power, office space, anchor institutions, marketing and direct mail. How can a billion-dollar company refuse such an opportunity for an instant monopoly?

Soon, Kansas City residents will hand over their Internet privacy to a company that has had a poor record of protecting it. Unfortunately, when they go to switch services, there will be no other choice. Google originally announced their fiber network would be open to other providers. After Kansas City was selected, that option quietly disappeared.

There is a better way. As should be done with any considerable city expense, the voters should decide whether fiber infrastructure is an essential part of a city budget and whether to bail out UTOPIA's bonds. This will eliminate the most wasted part of UTOPIA's expenses — the interest.

The voter, not the mayor, the city council, the state Legislature, or The Salt Lake Tribune, should decide whether open fiber networks should sit with roads, water and sewer as an essential and cohesive part of city infrastructure. If so, no further rights-of-way or permits should be granted to corporations seeking to create their own communication monopolies.

Like every shipping company shares the roads, all Internet, telephone and video companies will have to use the same infrastructure to deliver their service. Fewer individual "cables" will go from pole to pole, polluting our skyline. Every street will be constructed with all the facilities required for a 21st century business or home, mostly underground.

Fiber optics are the end game for all communications. Utah's voters need to decide whether we trust Century Link and Comcast, who have not delivered in the past 20 years of Internet growth, or to move forward with this technology as an essential part of city infrastructure.

Pete Ashdown is the founder and CEO of Utah's first independent and oldest Internet service provider, XMission.

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