Back in the mid 90s, the big US telco companies promised to deliver high-speed networking infrastructure to help bring the country into the new networked economy of the 21st century. Specifically, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 paid the telcos (including Qwest's predecessor US West) $200 billon in fee increases and tax incentives. They were supposed to use that money to replace our 19th century copper infrastructure in its entirety with fiber-optics, all the way out to the jack on the wall, delivering vastly improved performance not only for traditional Internet but all kinds of other services (HDTV, etc). Long story short, the telcos took the money and ran - they spent it on other things. The conversion was supposed to have been done by 2006.
In 2008 our homes still have the old, slow copper and the telcos have not only thrived on the "stolen" money, but continue to ream us with high fees for this ancient technology and lousy service. Some more detail and perspective can be found here:
In the meantime, in Japan, So. Korea and Europe, they've moved ahead and done what our telcos were supposed to do (with a lot of gov't support, I imagine), and you can now get 100 megabit service in these countries for less than what you'd pay in the US for 8 megabit cable service. And that's cable... what Qwest and its ilk commonly offer is even less.
When it started to become obvious that the telcos were never going to deliver on their promise, publically-run projects (typically at the municipal level) started springing up around the US. UTOPIA is one of these, and is probably the most extensive, involving several cities up and down the Wasatch Front, and even as far south as Cedar City (iProvo is another). To be clear, these projects are intended to provide only the "wires" over which services will be made available. They are not intended to provide the services themselves. This infrastructure is available to all businesses and individual citizens to make use of, including the telcos.
Naturally, the telcos (including cable companies like Comcast) are not at all happy about this. It threatens to obsolete their legacy infrastructure and the investment that they have made in it. They don't want to lose their monopoly status, and have to start competing with lots of smaller operations (the Vonages of the world) to provide voice and other services over a network they can't control. So they're fighting tooth and nail, using their considerable political power to try to kill off projects like UTOPIA.
However in spite of the telcos' best efforts, such projects survive. UTOPIA is currently operating in several Utah cities, but the build-out of the network has faced setbacks because of having to fight these formidable opponents and their limitless resources. As if that weren't bad enough, the Salt Lake Tribune has recently joined in the effort to belittle the accomplishments of UTOPIA and attempt to turn public opinion against it. 
The Killer Question
It seems the central question around which this issue revolves is: "Is it the place of government to get into the business of building and maintaining this sort of infrastructure?"
Of course there are a variety of thorny issues related to funding swirling around as well. Although the original UTOPIA model projected that the project would be self-sustaining without any external infusion of money (which so far it has been), the bonds for the project have been guaranteed by the member cities with potential future sales tax increases. These pledges would only be called in if the original debt service cannot be met.
Why viewers should care
Your viewers should care for a few reasons.
- They (along with almost everyone else in the US) have been, and are being, ripped off, as explained above.
- Because of the scale of UTOPIA among municipal networking projects, Utah stands to be a watershed case. We are rightly proud of our high-tech industry, and the success of UTOPIA will be a tremendous boon to further growth in that area. If Utah shows itself to be a leader in fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) networking, standing up to and bringing the corporate bullies to heel (eg. http://comcastissue.blogspot.com), and expanding the rate of broadband penetration to every household, it can only help our state's economic competitiveness (both domestically and internationally)
- The success of UTOPIA will help bring a certain level of prestige to Utah among US states, as a technology leader. And it will certainly instigate a trend to put the US back where it belongs as one of the most technologically advanced nations, among whom we currently look like a backwater, after having invented Internet technology in the first place! And of course the University of Utah played a seminal role in that story...
- If they care about the issue of net neutrality, this is very closely related. As long as major corporations own the infrastructure, there will be concerns about unfair competition.
I envision this show as a panel discussion among pro- and anti-UTOPIA guests such as the people whose names I sent earlier. Of course you'll need a fairly lengthy set-up segment explaining mainly what I've explained above - maybe as much as 10 minutes? I have no doubt a lively and heated debate among the guests would take up the remaining 20 minutes.
- UTOPIA project web site
- Robert Cringely's column
- FreeUTOPIA A nice news blog by Jesse Harris.
- WikTOPIA is a wiki devoted to understanding and promoting UTOPIA. It is just getting started, but has some intersting links.
- United States 25th worldwide in broadband penetration
- A Blueprint for Big Broadband - EDUCAUSE whitepaper: Mostly about the need for 100Mbps+ last mile connections. They reference UTOPIA and other FTTH projects around the US.
- UTOPIA: Could high-speed fiber optic end up a cyber-paradise lost?, Salt Lake Tribune, Dec 31, 2007
UTOPIA Advocacy points
- Gov. Huntsman (per Lt. Gov. Herbert's remarks) has made a key point of ensuring that economic development be a cornerstone of his office, particularly on an international scale. In order to achieve this, we also need to be competitive in the telecommunications arena.
- Studies have shown that users with high-speed FTTH connections, like the kind offered by UTOPIA, telecommute an average of 1 more day per month. For an average 20-mile commute, this translates into up to 6,000 fewer commuters heading to downtown Salt Lake City every month or almost 1.5M fewer miles driven per year. This doesn't even take into account commuting outside of downtown Salt Lake City. These systems can also be used to deploy high-tech traffic monitoring systems that improve traffic flow and lower commute times. High-speed fiber can be a integral part of solving traffic congestion woes. This is especially important in Utah where commuter miles driven have been increasing much faster than population.
The following points were provided by Nelson Beebe.
- Much higher network/telephone/video/communications bandwidth to every home and business, without prejudice.
- Ubiquity enables new technologies, even ones not yet thought of yet (consider the wildfire spread of cell phones in the developing countries --- my bicycle guide two years ago in China had one; consider the impact of the steam engine, telegraph, telephones, electric light, phonograph, automobile, the US interstate highway system, Internet search engines, global positioning sensing, high-definition television, digital cameras, personal digital assistants and media players, OnStar help in new GM automobiles, .... Particularly in electronics-driven areas, there is huge communal benefit once most people have access, because prices are driven down through economies of volume manufacturing and marketing.
- UTOPIA is network infrastructure, and open to all citizens, and businesses, in participating communities (it is not, as some claim, anti-your-particular-business or pro-your-competitor's).
- Cost is amortized over everyone and over a long period, just like the Interstate highway system, and the electricity and telephone networks. Outside of subscription costs, the cost per Utah citizen per year amounts to a few cups of a hot beverage and some donuts to go with it.
- Fiber technology is future proof --- no other currently-known technology is likely to replace it, or transcend the fundamental limit on communication speed: the speed of light.
- The world is rapidly becoming networked, and parts of Asia (Japan, Korea, Singapore) are far ahead of the US and Utah in the ubiquity of network access, the high speeds available, and in substantially lower connection cost. Utah is at a competitive disadvantage already, and the gap is widening. Our state population is no longer primarily engaged in the agriculture and mining industries, as it was prior to the 1970s. If the pending airlines merger goes through, we could lose our major airport hub, with a huge impact on business in the state. Were that followed by the closing of Hill AFB, our entire state economy would go down the drain, because we are not sufficiently diversified. Lots of small businesses that depend on the Internet to carry out a worldwide business can help to provide the necessary diversity.
- Massive expenditures are being proposed (hundreds of times more than UTOPIA) to extend the major highway system along the Wasatch Front, and even bridge Utah Lake. With high-speed Internet everywhere capable of flicker-free video and audio, many businesses could comfortably supervise employees working at home, saving the employees personal time and expense (and probably giving some of that time back to the business for free), making their lives safer, and reducing demands on the highways and the energy industry. It is notable that leading computer companies, including Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, Sun, HP, and others have sharply reduced their office rental space, and instead have employees working for them at remote sites, often as far away as India. Companies in other industries are moving in this direction too, but today, all are sharply limited by the bandwidth of our current communications possibilities.
- Expensive (hundreds of millions of dollars).
- Cost is borne even by nonusers (rebuttal: the same is true of K-12 education, the highway system, and public transportation: often the benefits are indirect, but we all enjoy them.)
- Government subsidizes the communications business (rebuttal: there is plenty of precedence for government subsidies and other support in the virtual monopolies in the utilities industries -- water, electricity, sewer, garbage collection, communications, plus the (successful) rescue of Chrysler Corporation in the 1980s)
- The UTOPIA investment is risky (rebuttal: all investments are, but who would now claim that telephones, electricity, water and other utilities are luxuries that we can do without while preserving our standard of living and way of life, or would want to?)
- Network access makes it easier for producers and consumers of pornography (rebuttal: drug traffickers and terrorists travel by land, air, and sea, but no sensible person would consider terminating access to travel because some criminals also travel)
- It usurps a business area that the communications giants are already providing service in (rebuttal: yes, but in many areas, as monopolies that charge high rates, and in some cases, interfere with access (e.g., Comcast content filtering in other US cities in 2007), or even terminate access for `overuse' (possibly leaving the customer with no access whatever). Also, the giants have demonstrated extreme slowness to move: in 1993, I got a computer capable of ISDN (56Kb/sec speed), but when it was retired five years later, it never got an ISDN connection, because there was none on the market, or at an affordable rate. In Utah, cable access for data still provides only about 1Mb/sec, whereas in other parts of the US, cable servers give 50Mb/sec or higher. Comcast refuses to provide a fixed IP address, an essential component of any business presence on the Internet, and necessary also for employees like me who have offices at home and at their place of employmenta).