Gigi Sohn: Bountiful City voted for fiber broadband. Big cable wants to take it away.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) A giant roll of orange conduit is at the ready as crews for Utopia, far left, use a drill to make a path for the conduit in Centerville, Utah on Monday, Aug. 22, 2011. The conduit will house fiber optic cables.

May 26 was an historic day for Bountiful City. The City Council voted unanimously, 5-0, to provide its residents with lightning fast, universal and affordable fiber broadband service by partnering with UTOPIA Fiber, the same company that provides fiber-to-the-home service in 20 cities across the state. Prior to the vote, the city underwent a very thorough, transparent process and opened the opportunity to provide broadband to the city’s residents to everyone, including the state’s largest cable and broadband companies. This process included surveys, a feasibility study and an invitation to all providers to submit a proposal. Only after this years-long process did the city sign a contract with UTOPIA Fiber.

UTOPIA Fiber was on track to start construction this summer until a dark money organization called the Utah Taxpayers Association (UTA) hired a group called Gather Utah to obtain signatures for a petition that would stop the city from building the broadband network it chose to provide to its residents. UTA is a “dark money” organization because it doesn’t currently publish a list of its dues paying members or its Board of Directors, so a Bountiful resident would have no idea who is behind this effort to take away this public benefit. Similarly, Gather Utah has no website, no listed phone number and no list of board members, staff or funding sources.

Here is what we do know.

UTA has long been opposed to communities having the freedom to choose the best broadband internet access for their residents. Its President, Rusty Cannon, has spoken in opposition to UTOPIA Fiber’s project in prior council meetings. Two huge cable and broadband companies, Comcast and CenturyLink/Lumen, have been members of UTA and have sponsored the UTA annual conference. They have been vocally opposed to community-owned broadband for decades and are well-known for providing organizations like the UTA with significant financial support in exchange for pushing policies that help maintain their market dominance. Yet when given the opportunity in 2020, before anyone else, to provide Bountiful City with affordable and robust broadband, the companies balked. So the dominant cable companies not only don’t want to provide the service Bountiful City needs, they also want to block others from doing so.

We also know that Gather Utah has been telling some Bountiful City residents that they represent city government and that their effort is in support of the UTOPIA Fiber project. This is utterly false. Gather Utah’s petition would override the City Council’s decision and put the matter on the ballot this November — a delay of more than four months. This would cause a number of negative consequences for the future of affordable high-speed broadband in the city.

First, interest rates for the financing are likely to be higher six months from now. The Chair of the Federal Reserve just announced that the Fed will be raising interest rates later this year. This would lead to a more expensive bond and higher costs for customers.

Second, construction of the network would be delayed at least until March or April 2024, depending on the weather.

Finally, UTOPIA has been holding its price for six months, but if the project were to be delayed, it would need to reprice the project. With inflationary adjustments and especially high increases in the price of materials and labor, the delay could increase the cost of the project significantly. Contrary to its name, one could conclude that UTA isn’t really looking out for taxpayers.

Bountiful City residents: if somebody knocks on your door from Gather Utah claiming that signing their petition will lead to affordable, robust fiber broadband Internet access: DON’T SIGN IT.

If you have already signed the petition and after learning the truth want to remove your name from the petition, go to this link on Bountiful City’s website, download the proper forms and return them to the city.

Broadband Internet access is vital for full participation in our society, our economy, our health care and education systems and our culture. Bountiful City exercised its freedom to choose how to provide every resident with affordable, super high speed fiber broadband. We can’t let monopoly cable companies interfere with that freedom.

(Ralph Alswang) A headshot of Gigi Sohn, the Executive Director of the American Association for Public Broadband

Gigi Sohn is the Executive Director of the American Association for Public Broadband. AAPB is an organization dedicated to ensuring that communities have the freedom to choose what broadband network best serves their residents. More information can be found at AAPB.us.