Orem fianances better including UTOPIA fees

Utopia trucks continue to appear throughout the city as residents add on to the fiber-optic network.

No issue in recent history has polarized Orem quite like UTOPIA.

In 2002, Orem partnered with 10 other Utah cities to construct an open fiber-optic network, allowing residents and businesses to choose from more than a dozen providers for internet, phone, and TV service. Although UTOPIA provides superior service with exceptional customer satisfaction, the primary challenge has been raising enough construction capital to make service available throughout each city.

All of us pay sales tax to support UTOPIA’s original bond, yet most still cannot access the network. As a result, incumbent providers like Comcast and CenturyLink do not need to compete very hard to keep business. While we wait for fiber, Wi-Fi to our parks and citywide air quality monitors provide some benefit. But what we really want is equitable access to the shared infrastructure our tax dollars built.

Four years ago — long before the thought of running for office had even crossed my mind — I was told my neighborhood would have access to fiber within six months. I soon learned this promise was merely lip service, as we are still in the dark without any clear timeline for construction.

It was unsurprising to hear a politician say what I wanted to hear. It was equally unsurprising to see incumbent providers donate thousands to his re-election campaign. Admittedly, it’s hard to blame them. Innovation and competition cost money. Funding candidates and groups that keep markets less competitive is cheap and lucrative..

Last week, Billy Hesterman from the Utah Taxpayers Association wrote a letter to the Daily Herald cautioning Orem not to complete our fiber network. The letter took financial figures out of context to paint UTOPIA’s significant progress in the most negative light possible. Even the name of Hesterman’s lobbying group disguises the anti-competitive interests it represents.

For years, the incumbents have funded campaigns to vilify UTOPIA and block any proposal to improve the network’s reach or financial success. The timing of this recent letter smearing UTOPIA is no coincidence.

The Orem City Council soon plans to conduct a public survey asking residents for input on a potential solution to this 16-year-old problem. If approved by the council, the proposal would complete Orem’s network within two to three years without increasing taxes or adding fees. Only subscribers would pay.

If we maintained today’s subscription rates, subscriber revenues would cover all payments on the proposed $25 million bond, plus offset one-third of our existing UTOPIA debt payments.

Even if subscription rates fell 40 percent — an unlikely scenario given the network’s continual improvement — the city would be no worse off financially than we are today. With real market competition, all of us could expect better service at better prices, whether we switch to UTOPIA or not.

We could debate whether UTOPIA was a good idea in the first place, but without a time machine, we cannot change that 2002 decision. I do not fault our predecessors who were navigating uncharted territory with a revolutionary concept. Our directive now is to learn from our experience to recalibrate a better plan for our future. We now have the luxury of hindsight to know what works and what does not.

Hesterman was right that the Google Fiber model is not working on a national scale like Google hoped, but he missed why Google has struggled. Fiber is not the problem. Fiber is just a bad fit for a business that answers to impatient stockholders on a quarterly basis.

On the other hand, long-term public infrastructure projects are well suited to municipalities. The UIA model UTOPIA started six years ago is thriving. The network has expanded, subscriber revenues have soared and cities have paid nothing toward the construction bonds. The proposal to complete Orem’s network would use the same model, while returning additional revenues to the city for debt relief.

We must stop kicking the can down the road. Please join in this conversation to learn about our options and share your ideas. Let’s plan our solution together and resolve this issue once and for all.

Sam Lentz is an Orem city councilman.