Tax or fee? Cities face key decisions on future of UTOPIA

Published: Saturday, June 14 2014 6:20 p.m. MDT

Completing the project

Pyle with West Valley City said many residents have waited 10 years for the capabilities of a fiber-optic network and that the Macquarie deal will make that service possible.

"I think this is the best proposal that I’ve seen so far, and the reason for that is just the depth of Macquarie’s abilities to bring financial resources to bear and construction resources to bear," he said.

He said the monthly fee paid by residents would allow Macquarie to finalize construction of the network, linking tens of thousands of homes and businesses to UTOPIA, and secure basic internet service during the 30-year partnership.

West Valley City also added another incentive for residents this week, securing a partnership with Ooma, a California-based telecommunications company, to provide free home telephone service upon completion of the fiber-optic network.

"Between the Internet service, the telephone service and the utility fee, you literally will save hundreds of dollars per year if you were to pick that particular bundle of services," Pyle said.

Residents would continue to have the option of buying Internet and phone services from another provider, Pyle said, but would pay the monthly utility fee to their city whether or not they take part in UTOPIA.

"We want to provide open access to all private service providers and therefore all the competition," Pyle said.

Brian McBride said he switched to UTOPIA service immediately after moving to Murray a little over a year ago, and the fiber-optic network was one of the reasons he chose to live where he does.

He said the Internet service from UTOPIA has been "remarkable," free from the sporadic network crashes he experienced under a different provider and offering a greater value at a lower price.

"I’m actually paying less today than I was previously for my Internet service, and the speed is much, much faster than what I’ve experienced before," McBride said.

McBride said he supports moving forward with the Macquarie proposal, particularly so that city leaders and residents have all the information necessary to make a final decision on the 30-year agreement.

He said the potential for a monthly utility fee doesn't bother him, because he sees Internet connectivity as an increasingly essential service and the infrastructure of the future.

"I’m of the personal belief that the internet is becoming more utility-like each day and for me it's essential," he said.

Lindon resident Doug McKay, who has been a customer of UTOPIA "since the day it was available" roughly seven years ago, said he likes the idea of Internet being part of a city infrastructure. But he said he's undecided on the issue of requiring residents to pay for a service they don't use.

"I’m a little torn on that," he said. "Having a requirement to pay a fee for everybody seems a little interesting."

Other options

The 11 cities affiliated with UTOPIA have a number of options beyond the Macquarie proposal, including remaining with the current limited service of UTOPIA or to abandon the network entirely.

But Pyle said there are a number of challenges associated with scrapping the embattled fiber-optic network, including the loss of revenue from UTOPIA that offsets the debt cities are under obligation to repay.

"If we closed this down and walked away, all that revenue would go away and all that additional costs would be put on the shoulders of the city and, of course, the taxpayer," he said.

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