Even Sir Thomas More understood that Utopia was an imaginary place that could not be reached. He took the word from a Greek word meaning "no place."

Unfortunately, the place in which 11 Wasatch Front cities — all members of the UTOPIA fiber-optic network — find themselves is not fictional. It is, however, no place they should wish to be.

UTOPIA, in the Utah sense, stands for Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency. Originally, it was billed as a network that would provide essentially free money for the cities who joined. All they had to do was pledge a portion of their tax revenues as collateral for bonds necessary to construct the system — a pledge that was supposed to remain in effect for 20 years.

There was little risk, they were told.

But now, suddenly, the price of reaching this imaginary place has risen. Sometime between now and May 1, the 11 cities each will have to decide whether they want to increase their pledged amounts and extend the terms to 33 years — at least. If you read the deal closely, the cities would allow UTOPIA to draw against their tax pledges in increments. Every time they did so — be it now, in 10 years or presumably anytime in the future — the 33-year clock would start ticking.

Even if the network does succeed, each of these cities will have frozen collateral that could be used for other debts more fitting for cities, such as building new fire stations or parks.

But history suggests UTOPIA won't succeed. By now, it was supposed to have 24,181 customers. In reality, it has a little more than 7,000. By now, it was supposed to have signed up 43 percent of the potential customers it could service. In reality, it has signed 17 percent.

UTOPIA's defenders use condescending tones when responding to people such as me. We just don't get it. We haven't done our homework. The network isn't competing with the private sector, they say. It is merely a delivery system — a state-of-the-art, fast-paced fiber-optic network any provider could access to bring telephone, television and the Internet into your house.

UTOPIA, they say, is like an airport. Salt Lake International doesn't compete with Southwest or Delta. It provides services all airlines may use.

Actually, the analogy is useful, but only when viewed this way: Salt Lake already has an international airport, as well as Airport No. 2 in West Jordan for private traffic. UTOPIA is trying to build a third airport and lure traffic away from the other two.

That should become more clear in coming weeks when Qwest announces a new 14-state effort to lay fiber-optic cable into neighborhoods. It's an effort that will cost several hundred million dollars, but it won't be borrowed against taxes. If it is borrowed at all, it won't be on terms that extend 33 years.

Whatever you were doing 33 years ago, you couldn't have found a crystal ball powerful enough to make a telecom investment that still would be useful and cutting edge today.

I wouldn't be surprised if Comcast and other companies have something similar planned. Private companies take calculated risks based on market needs. Companies that can rely on public treasuries tend to be more reckless.

Last year, the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco commissioned a study titled, "Wi-Fi Waste: The Disaster of Municipal Communications Networks." It studied 52 such networks and concluded they have "blundered (their) way through the marketplace, eroding private investment, slowing high-tech innovation, deceiving consumers and serving the interests of politicians."

When they begin to fail, they try to undercut their competition, which stifles innovation. Or they find tricky ways to borrow money, the way Provo City's iProvo has, from other city budgets.

The 11 Utah cities face a difficult choice. If they don't approve the new terms, UTOPIA would fail and they would have to pay the taxes they've pledged. If they go along, they would foolishly increase the amount they could lose.

That really is no place to be.


Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: [email protected]