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Pyle: It would be a shame if UTOPIA went nowhere

By George Pyle

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Jun 14 2014 12:37 pm • Last Updated Jun 14 2014 12:38 pm

"Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed." — Darth Vader

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It’s 2014, for crying out loud. We were supposed to have flying cars, personal rocket packs, domestic robots and scheduled service to the moon via Pan Am.

At the very least, we were all supposed to have instant two-way communications, complete with unlimited audio, 3-D video and all of humanity’s collective knowledge at our fingertips.

Instead, as more than one wag has noted on more than one Facebook page, we all have access to a worldwide web of knowledge, and we use it to start arguments with people we don’t know over subjects we don’t understand. And watch cat videos.

Not exactly Utopia. Or UTOPIA.

Spelled small, Utopia is an imaginary land, invented 500 years ago by English politician Thomas More, where everything is perfect. It is a word he made up by combining two Greek words and creating a fancy term that meant "nowhere." Thus, nowhere, like nobody, is perfect.

Thus it probably wasn’t a good idea for the founders of the troubled fiber optic network that is weighing down the dreams and the budgets of 11 Utah cities to have called their creation UTOPIA. It stands for Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency. But, sadly, it has proven an unreachable ideal. Or, looked at another way, has gone nowhere.

UTOPIA carries online traffic to a woefully small number of customers. And a debt that now hovers well upward of half a billion dollars, serviced by the taxpayers of the 11 cities whose leaders a dozen years ago envisioned a world in which super a high-speed Internet connection would be as basic to any community’s infrastructure as its roads, bridges and water lines.

That highway would carry all kinds of goods and services offered mostly by the private, for-profit sector, in the same way that publicly built and serviced highways carry delivery trucks operated by many different companies whose services are for hire.

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And, like the roads, bridges and water lines in most communities, that new information super-highway would be designed, built and maintained by local government. Why? Because the alternative was to wait for some private concern to come along — which, at that time, didn’t look likely — invest all that money, charge whatever they wanted for the service and, possibly, not allow any competition for the consumer services that would flow over those privately owned fibers. A private toll road, which the owner could close to competing businesses, or just folks they didn’t like.

This is similar to the "net neutrality" battle, fought before the Federal Communications Commission, between those who favor the public highway concept of the Internet and those who want to let the owners of the pipeline charge different prices for different levels of service, creating two, or more, levels of access that would benefit the rich and the connected.

And those providers are the very people who would just love to see UTOPIA fail. To see it be forced to sell off its assets at fire sale prices, so they could take over service to the most profitable areas, at the greatest possible mark-up, and leave taxpayers holding the bag for their failed dream of a public information super-highway that would belong to everyone.

UTOPIA cities are trying to salvage their dream by talking to an Aussie concern called Macquarie. Under the plan, Macquarie would lease, improve and operate the system, tapping its $14 billion global market capitalization for seed money and enticing enough users to make the whole thing profitable for itself and, at least, not a loser for the owner cities.

The belief that there would finally be a lot of demand for that service is supported by news that Google, which knows everything, is taking over the city-owned iProvo network in Provo, is building a whole new one in Kansas City, and may create another in Salt Lake City.

There are red flags, including the fact that Macquarie wants to slap a fee of maybe $18 a month on every address in the UTOPIA cities, whether they want the service or not. There are reasons to believe that fee, along with anything that could even be read as a municipal subsidy for a telecommunications system, is illegal in Utah.

UTOPIA might not be long for this world. If it dies, it would be a shame. Such a basic function of modern life should be provided by an outfit that exists to serve its customers, rather than a corporation that exists for the sole purpose of taking people’s money away from them and giving it to their stockholders and managers.

Or is that Utopian thinking?

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, would, in a perfect world, have been able to make these points in a lot fewer words.

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