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Pyle: Don’t forget net neutrality in plotting Utah’s online future

By George Pyle

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Jun 27 2014 12:07 pm • Last Updated Jun 27 2014 05:00 pm

"Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You’re right when you say my father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I’ll never know."

— George Bailey, "It’s a Wonderful Life."

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A lot of good folks are still trying to figure out what they were thinking when 11 Wasatch Front cities banded together 12 years ago and anted up what now amounts to a half-billion in debt to build what they hoped would be an open, state-of-the-art fiber optic Internet service network for their communities.

West Valley City, the largest member of the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, is leading a few of its partners toward a bailout deal with an Australian investment bank. But other members of UTOPIA are balking at what could be years more uncertainty, expense and bitter disappointment over a dream that crashed.

Whatever success it might have achieved was hobbled from the beginning by many things, including the fact that many would-be customers were frightened off by a combination of high front-loaded costs and an understandable feeling that the high-capacity path for everything from web browsing to streaming video to phone calls was a lot more than anyone would ever need or use.

Despite the Internet’s supposed ability to connect any one of us to every one of us, the debate has sadly been conducted mostly in a very small Utah pond.

Unmentioned is the fact that broadband Internet service in the United States is controlled by a handful, usually non-overlapping, of for-profit companies. They are neither effectively regulated by government nor pestered by competitors and, as a result, their product costs much more and provides a lot less than the services found in most other industrialized nations.

Much of it is controlled by Comcast — among the funders of the Utah Taxpayers Association and its anti-UTOPIA campaign — and Time Warner — which is about to merge with Comcast.

If UTOPIA did fold for good, the company that would be at the head of the line to buy its millions of dollars worth of infrastructure at pennies on the dollar would be — wait for it — Comcast.

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That would put an end to UTOPIA as a cost-competitive counterweight to Comcast. An end to any force that might push Comcast, or Century Link, to lower prices or improve services in areas where the two compete.

It would also be the end of the true freedom that is promised by the Internet, a concept beloved of geeks and nerds known as "net neutrality."

That’s the idea that the pipeline is open to all, with those who sell access to your home or business having no say in, and making no profit from, the services you choose to consume.

An idea that is being killed by, of course, Comcast. Its recent hardballing of Netflix into paying a fee for the right to a "fast lane" to deliver its fare to its customers is only the first of what promises to be many cases of tollgates on the Information Superhighway.

Another UTOPIA scavenger might be Google, which is buying Provo’s separate municipal fiber network, even as it installs one in Kansas City and is floating the possibility of coming to Salt Lake City next.

But Google, like Comcast — and, in theory at least, unlike UTOPIA — doesn’t exist to serve its customers. It exists to extract money — and, these days, information — from its customers to the benefit of its stockholders and managers.

And, despite setting itself a corporate mission statement of "Don’t be evil," Google is the target of complaints that range from destroying people’s lawns in Kansas City to caving to demands for censorship in China.

In the speech quoted above, George Bailey is telling off the greedy Mr. Potter, who already owns most of the not-so-Utopian little town of Bedford Falls, and now wants to close the little-guy-serving Bailey Bros. Building and Loan.

"I know very well what you’re talking about," Bailey says. "You’re talking about something you can’t get your fingers on, and it’s galling you."

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