Kaysville residents want more research on a city-owned fiber optic network

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r Jason Sanders and Nephi Harvey are members of a newly-formed group of residents known as the Coalition for Responsible Kaysville Fiber that is asking the city to pump the brakes on the fiber optic project, citing a need for more research. The Kaysville City Council is poised to approve a $26 million bond this fall that would allow it to build, own and maintain a municipal fiber optic network.

Citing high internet costs and a need to keep up with changing technology, the Kaysville City Council is poised to approve a $26 million bond this fall that would allow it to build, own and maintain a municipal fiber optic network.

City leaders promoting the plan are pitching the creation of such a network as a “necessity of the 21st century” akin to roads, power lines and water pipes. They also hope the system would provide more people with faster internet and increase competition, thereby driving prices down for customers across the city.

“As I was doing door-to-door campaigning, this was an issue that came up again and again and again,” said Kaysville Mayor Katie Witt, who’s a proponent of the city’s plan to create a fiber optic network. “We need to look down the road and plan for the future and make sure that we have the critical infrastructure in our community.”

But as the city moves closer to making that vision a reality, a newly formed group of residents known as the Coalition for Responsible Kaysville Fiber is asking the city to pump the brakes on the project.

While they say they’re not necessarily against fiber, group members would like to see more research on the issue and greater public outreach before the city decides to invest in what would become one of the biggest projects in Kaysville history. They also worry the system will become an outdated “dinosaur” in just a few years — saddling residents with the bill.

“At this time, we’re asking them to pause, provide more transparency, provide more comprehensive review,” said Jason Sanders, one of a half dozen members of the coalition. “We would just like to see better due diligence at this point.”

City Councilwoman Michelle Barber, who serves on Kaysville’s fiber optic technical advisory committee, argues the city has already done what residents are asking for in terms of research and transparency since it began looking at the issue early last year. She called the fiber optic network “one of the most vetted and open projects that we’ve worked on."

“That’s what took 18 months of looking at was finding out that there are options, there are a lot of different options and ways to go about this," she said. “And after evaluating them all, going through a really long process, seeing feasibility, financial models and what’s the best fit, we found this one which we believe to be the best fit for Kaysville.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kaysville Mayor Katie Witt is a proponent of the fiber optic network, Sept. 10, 2019. The Kaysville City Council is poised to approve a $26 million bond this fall that would allow it to build, own and maintain a municipal fiber optic network.

If the council approves the 30-year, $26 million bond, installation of the fiber network could take about three years, according to the city, with sections coming online as they’re completed. Kaysville won’t make a profit off the system and any revenues would be used to pay off installation costs and maintain the network.

As part of the plan, private companies would provide basic internet service to all residents and businesses, though any could decide to pay an extra fee for a higher level of service. They could also choose to opt out entirely but would still be required to pay a monthly fee on their utility bill, though it would be slightly lower than the price set for homes at $12.45 a month and commercial entities at $21.50.

The council is expected to hold public hearings on the issue at its Oct. 3 meetings, with a decision expected Oct. 17.

As that vote looms, the Kaysville Coalition for Responsible Fiber is asking the city to conduct an independent audit of the project that would address whether fiber is “critical infrastructure,” along with how the networks in other cities have performed and at what cost. The group also wants a review of technology needs for the city and whether Kaysville has the financial resources to manage the network.

Those requests are, in part, to ensure the city fully addresses the potential downsides of creating a fiber optic network, Sanders said — something he feels has not been done, with research presupposing the investment is right for the city.

“There’s nothing that they’ve disclosed that says, ‘Here are the cons,’” he said. “There’s a lot of reasons why you shouldn’t do fiber. You can look at UTOPIA, you can look at Provo, the number of cities that have struggled with it and we just haven’t seen any public analysis despite these failures why Kaysville should move forward.”

Provo struggled for years with its iProvo fiber optic network, which it borrowed $39 million to install. But the city was never able to get enough subscribers to cover the cost of the bond and at one point had to pour $2 million a year in surplus funds from its energy department to cover the balance. Those weren’t the only costs, either, as some internet service providers either went out of business or could not keep up with the payments to Provo to offset the monthly debt service.

In 2013, the city sold its fiber optic Internet to Google, paving the way for it to become Google Fiber.

Kaysville is looking at a fee-based model in lieu of a subscription-based connection fee, in which service providers pay for access based on the number of customers they have — a model the city says carries much less financial risk and will have different outcomes.

“Provo was the bleeding edge on this and we’ve learned a lot over the intervening years — so we’re at the leading edge, not the bleeding edge," Witt said. "So what it allows us to do is fight the pitfalls that were experienced by Provo, which I feel bad for them.”

While most of the council appears to be in favor of the fiber optic network proposal, Councilman Dave Adams said he’s concerned about some of the particulars of the project, which he feels is being “forced and rammed upon the people.” He would like to see the bond go before the people for a vote, as was originally planned before the city moved toward viewing the project as “critical infrastructure.”

“I’m not necessarily entirely opposed to a fiber trunk line that could support 5G communications and support wireless communications,” he said. “If the ballot were to go out and it came back 51% or greater for fiber, I’m certainly all in favor of supporting the people in that measure. And I’m not confident that that would be the result.”

City officials have pointed to a recent survey that found more than 85% of Kaysville businesses and residents want better internet. Some 81% of residents specifically agreed that they think the city should help facilitate that.

And while Witt acknowledged the ballot was the original path, she noted that the city does not put “infrastructure projects” on the ballot.

“I would love to have citizens be able to weigh in on it but if we’re going to start voting on infrastructure projects like sewer lines and power lines and things like that, it gets very complicated very fast,” she said.

As members of the public ask the city to slow down, Adams, who lost his bid for reelection, thinks that’s unlikely. He argues that the mayor wants to push this through before the upcoming election, when the council will lose a majority of its members, and wonders if what he perceives as a rushed process is an effort for Witt to add a line to her resume for her recently announced congressional run.

Witt disregards those accusations.

“I don’t think that if I had been planning to run for Congress that I necessarily would have chosen to take this on,” she said. “I might have passed this along to the next mayor, right? But I think this is what we need to do for our community and I think we have a lot of residents and citizens who are really excited and can’t wait for this to happen.”