Qwest has deal for S.L. if UTOPIA is defeated

Utility vows to offer DSL lines to 90% of the city's residences

Published: Wednesday, April 7 2004 6:32 a.m. MDT

Qwest gave the Salt Lake City Council a bit of a carrot Tuesday to encourage them to vote against joining the much touted but controversial UTOPIA.

If the council votes down the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, Qwest says it will, by the end of the year, provide speedy DSL lines to 90 percent of the residences in Salt Lake City.

Of course, for Qwest to accomplish that ambitious goal, the city would have to relax some of its red tape filled conditional-use processes.

"We are ready to make a substantial investment in Salt Lake City," Qwest's president for Utah, Jerry Fenn, told city leaders.

Currently Qwest provides such DSL service to roughly 60 percent of the homes in Salt Lake City, so Fenn said his offer would increase service by 30 percent.

Fenn's comments came during Salt Lake City's final public hearing on UTOPIA, which would provide high-speed fiber optic lines to everyone of its 18 member cities. While the DSL Fenn offered is fast, UTOPIA's fiber lines would be much faster. Qwest and Comcast have argued for months that UTOPIA duplicates services they are trying to provide.

The council decided it would vote on whether to join UTOPIA on April 13.

It was Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson who first urged the City Council to join UTOPIA last year and spend some $180,000 for a feasibility study, which showed UTOPIA had a good business model.

"In the realm of economic development and business promotion, several new projects are on the horizon. First, we propose joining UTOPIA, a statewide effort to build a fiber-optic network that will make available broadband Internet, data and video services to every house and business in Salt Lake City, " Anderson said in his State of the City address earlier this year. "While the project is just getting off the ground, the prospects are very promising that Salt Lake City can enhance its reputation for being the most wired city in the nation, at very little cost to taxpayers."

But at 6 p.m. Monday Anderson sent an e-mail to council members pointing out nine reasons why UTOPIA is a bad idea.

"Why UTOPIA? Why Utah? Why now?" Anderson wrote in his e-mail. "Why government rather than the private sector? Why should we be the 'pioneers'?"

Since Anderson's State of the City address, UTOPIA has discovered it will need member cities to back its $540 million construction bonds. For Salt Lake City that would be $4.1 million for 17 years.

The city would only have to spend a portion of that money if UTOPIA doesn't reach its subscription goals. Anderson did mention the increased financial risk, which was No. 5 on his nine-item list.

Several City Council members have also voiced concerns about the financial risk. But a few are drawn to UTOPIA because of its futuristic promise — high speed, fiber-optic Internet access to every residential and business address in member cities. Many also see the network's potential to bring new businesses to the city.

So far, 10 cities — including West Valley City, a frequent economic competitor with Salt Lake City — have voted to pledge tax dollars to back bonds for the $540 million fiber-optic network. Three have voted to be part of it without pledging any money, which is one option Anderson would like to explore. Four remain undecided. Organizers of the network say the system would have 10 times the bandwidth of current broadband data services, enough to offer households Internet, video and telephone service on a single line. Supporters said building UTOPIA would also provide educational opportunities to participating cities.

If built, UTOPIA would allow private companies such as AT&T and Qwest to compete on the fiber-optic line for customers.


E-mail: bsnyder@desnews.com

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