Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 474

This is the transcript for episode 474 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. On this episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, Christopher Mitchell is joined by Mike Gailey (Mayor of Syracuse), Brody Bovero (City Manager for the City of Syracuse), and Scott Darington (City Manager for the City of Pleasant Grove) to talk about why they decided to work with UTOPIA to connect their communities in Utah. Listen to the podcast here or read the transcript below.

Scott Darington: There will be people that will not move into a community if they don't have access to broadband, because everything now is connected to broadband for a city to stay viable in a certain sense. This is something that we need to make sure is available.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota. And today, I'm returning to an area of the country we've talked about frequently, an area of the country that's doing a lot of things right. We're going to be talking about the areas served by UTOPIA, which is Salt Lake City and areas nearby as well as areas fairly far away from it. At this point, we're talking with Mayor Gailey, who is the mayor of Syracuse. Welcome to the show.

Mike Gailey: Thank you, I'm glad to be here. Maybe I can tell you a little bit of the history of telecommunications here in Syracuse. The first telephone in Syracuse was installed in 1901 and it was installed in the old Walker Store. And for those Syracuse residents, it's midway between 2000 West of the lake shore down below the bluff road, and there was just one single phone. One of the Walker sons, one of the Walker brothers, had two little girls and a call would come in to them and then they would traipse through the community on horseback giving messages to people to come down to the store and call this person back. So it was an answering service of sorts on a horse.

Mike Gailey: Syracuse has gone from horseback, I'm a member of the 1950s generation and Andy of Mayberry had an old phone where he had to have the assistance of an operator to make the call. That was a little before my time, but I remember party lines here in Syracuse, where there are nine or 10 different residents connected to the same party line. That's where I learned about the term of eavesdropping because my grandmother used to eavesdrop all the time and get upset. It was the olden days Facebook, where you'd get upset at what somebody said behind your back.

2:25

Mike Gailey: Then I also remember when cell phones became an important part of life that was in the seventies and we've quit tracing where landlines were and we've over the years switched to not owning a landline, we don't. But the big change came with the worldwide web. Then that was in the '90s and the Internet when it first came. We have providers who were providing that Internet service for us and we've been quite happy in the past with that, but Syracuse is moving on, although we're a cattle town and we were very simple town then, we began messenger girls running messages on horseback. We'd really like to have the high speed ability of broadband and that's why we've sought out UTOPIA.

Christopher Mitchell: Wonderful, that's quite an encapsulation. I think the only thing you we might add to that is that in every generation, parents were really furious about their children or using the technology. So, that's something that doesn't change. We also have with us Brody Bovero, who is a city manager at Syracuse. Brody, just give us a sense, so we know a little bit about the history, about how big is Syracuse and where is it situated?

Brody Bovero: Yeah, so Syracuse City is in Davis County. We're about a half hour north of salt lake city, and a little bit to the west. We're on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. Our tagline is we're the gateway to Antelope Island, which is a state park, which is an island out in the middle of the Salt Lake, the Great Salt Lake. We're about 30,000 people and growing fast, we're amongst the fastest-growing communities in the state.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent and then rounding out our discussion, we have Scott Darington, who is a city manager of Pleasant Grove. Welcome.

Scott Darington: Hey, it's good to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: Tell us about pleasant Grove along a similar lines.

Scott Darington: Yeah, Pleasant Grove is just a community along the Wasatch Front is what we call it here in Utah, which is kind of the metropolitan area we are in between Provo and Salt Lake City, probably about, I would say 35 miles south of Salt Lake, just along I15. We're a community about 40,000 people. We're getting pretty close to build-out, so we are seeing some growth right now, but eventually that's going to slow down for us, but we are a community that has a thriving business sector and things like broadband now are becoming a more important discussion for us.

Christopher Mitchell: That's where I want to start and ask you, and I may ask you first, Scott, my sense is both of your communities, neither one of you is what we would think of as a broadband desert, right? It's not the case that people have no options for a majority of your citizens. But tell us a little bit about how broadband has been expanded in your community. What's its level of service currently?

5:13

Scott Darington: Yeah. We have a couple of providers, may providers here in our city and what they don't provide is really broadband directly to the home with a dedicated line, similar to what a UTOPIA can do. And so we do have a decent service here, we have people that are happy, I think with our current service. We do have some that would like a little bit more, and that is what's happened to us. They want this service, they feel a little bit stuck and so they turn to city government and say, "Hey, what can you do to help us?" Because I think COVID exacerbated this because people were now working from home more than ever and then they were realizing their connection needed to be a little bit more robust in order for them to be fully effective. So, that's when we started getting emails, reach outs from our public to our elected officials and to myself saying, "Hey, what can the city do about this?"

Christopher Mitchell: And is that pretty similar in Syracuse Mayor Gailey? Is that what you hear when you're out about town?

Mike Gailey: Yes. I think we're maybe a little different than Pleasant Grove in the fact that we are about 50% from build-out. We've got a long way to go. Scott has already marched down that path and one of my main concerns within the city of Syracuse, we recently had what we would call a big box store, not one of the national ones, but one here in the west, leave Syracuse because of population and exposure along a frequented freeway. So, they left Syracuse and we lost that tax base.

Mike Gailey: So, we have been trying to find ways through economic development to bring people to a destination. Now, we're not Salt Lake City and neither are we Ogden and we're not right along the I15 route. We are another kind of city, which is further away from that. So to attract businesses to Syracuse, we've got to have it become a destination place where there is already bigger broadband in place so that they can bring those national chains.

7:23

Mike Gailey: I don't want to mention any names, but some of those Internet distributing companies that are big named in the nation, we would like to attract one of them there because one of my big jobs is to bring jobs to Syracuse, not so much retail, but jobs that people do spend money. So, that's how we're different. We are a little different. We are just now becoming an economic spot. We're where we're nowhere near build-out, we're only halfway there.

Christopher Mitchell: And when you say nowhere near build-out does that mean there's significant areas where there's nothing available, or or what's that in reference to?

Mike Gailey: I'm talking about land. We've got about 50% of our land occupied and we still have 50% ... This is an old farm community, like I mentioned, where the Walker Brothers Store was around. It's a farming community and has been, but it's a transitioning farming community. The crop that the current farmers are harvesting is ... the final crop is the development of their land for some commercial use. That commercial use will require broadband.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, so that makes a lot more sense. I always think too narrowly, I'm always thinking that the whole universe is broadband, but the build-out term refers to you have a lot of land that will ultimately be converted to residential, commercial or industrial uses.

Mike Gailey: Yes, yes, yeah that's true.

Christopher Mitchell: So, let me just ask you then Brody, is there anything else that you'd add to that with regard to what you're hearing from folks?

Brody Bovero: Yeah, just the mayor touch the business side of the equation, there's also the residential side. What we were hearing, it was primarily two things from our citizens. One was that there are pockets of our city where there wasn't a real availability for high-speed Internet. There was Internet, but it wasn't high speed, still. Our residents and our community is fairly affluent. They're people who know how to use technology. There are people that use it for work, for their livelihoods and entertainment. Their kids use it for video games. So they wanted it, but some of the areas of our city didn't have it and so they wanted something. And the incumbent providers, no disrespect to them, they have a business model that they have to follow, but their business model didn't entail bringing high speed out this far to some of these neighborhoods.

9:52

Brody Bovero: The other issue with those who did have the better Internet service was the selection. There was really one or maybe two providers available. They look around to some of the neighboring communities, largely through UTOPIA where you can have nine, 10 different Internet service providers, so competition was a big thing.

Christopher Mitchell: That resonates with what we hear a common story that I feel like that you hear in DC and many state capitals, is that the broadband problem is one of areas that are unserved or dramatically underserved. One of the things we've reported on and talked about, and I think something that UTOPIA deals well with is this sense that even cities that have mediocre or average ... mediocre seems like such a negative, but you have the same connectivity that almost all cities of your size and prestige have, and you feel that you need something better if you're going to set yourself apart, is one of the things that I'm hearing, is kind of like, "We don't want to just settle for being average. We really want to have top of the line, be ready for the future, be growing," and that sort of a sense. That's what I'm hearing.

Scott Darington: If I can comment on that.

Christopher Mitchell: Go ahead, Scott.

Scott Darington: In my opinion, broadband's going to be utility just as much as water and sewer's going to be utility in the very near future. So, whether that's provided by the private sector or whether it's provided by the public sector, there will be people that will not move into a community if they don't have access to broadband. I mean, that's just where we're headed, because everything now is connected to broadband. So, for a city to stay viable in a certain sense, this is something that we need to make sure is available.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, one of the things I'm curious about is whether, as people are getting ready to move into Pleasant Grove, if they're going to be saying, "Not only do I want high quality broadband," which in their mind might be defined by a cable company, " ... but I want to be in a network where I have the highest speeds and a choice of providers." Because we see this in real estate, in Minneapolis, where part of the city is served by a fiber optic network and it's not open access like UTOPIA, but people only want to live in that area, especially people who have gotten used to that. So, I think we're going to see people saying, "I only want to move into the UTOPIA neighborhoods in the next year or two," as I'm going to guess, it's going to take multiple years for you to build out to every last home.

12:27

Scott Darington: Well, in Pleasant Grove here, I mean, UTOPIA has started building their network as of a couple months ago. The build-out, they're telling us is roughly about two years. So within two years, each resident that wants to hook on will have an opportunity to hook on. They're not forced to, we're not charging them a utility fee, this is something that it will ... the service is there. But we did a survey, before we even signed up with UTOPIA, we did a survey and we asked people, "What type of speeds do you currently have? What type of speeds are you looking for? And if this type of service were available, how many of you would leave your service and jump to this service?" And it was like 80% were saying, "Look, we need more speeds. We need something more reliable." And that gave us confidence to move forward on this project because our residents are saying, "Yes, we will be willing to make this jump if this service becomes available."

Christopher Mitchell: Now Mayor Gailey, I'm curious if ... I'm not sure how long you've been mayor, but in the last election was broadband a part of it? Is this something that's come along more recently? What's the situation there?

Mike Gailey: No, I was elected four years ago and I'm in a tight race here in Syracuse now. When I was first running for mayor, UTOPIA was available but it wasn't an issue here in Syracuse. People were happy with what they had, but Brody did a survey just like was done in Pleasant Grove, of our residents and we realized that we were under- serving. Not that the city was going to step in and make it a true utility, but that we wanted to do something that would bring the marketplace to solve the problem in the cheapest way for our residents. We got outstanding response from our residents in that survey and they were all mostly for the service.

Mike Gailey: I would like to mention too, that we're a little different than Pleasant Grove because we're next door neighbors to Hill Air Force Base. And the aerospace industry is really, really an important part of North Davis County. And we are the bedroom community for Hill Air Force Base for those that aren't airmen. So, what we hope to attract is that aerospace industry that was going to require broadband just for them. COVID has taught us that working from home is a possibility, even this conference call that we've got going on wouldn't have been thought of before COVID. I want to tip my hat to Brody first for doing this survey and his awareness of what was going on in the community. We have a great city manager, as I'm sure you are, Scott.

15:23

Brody Bovero: He's definitely a great city manager.

Christopher Mitchell: I was going to say, we can have some sort of city manager off.

Brody Bovero: I would defer to him. He's the godfather of city managers here.

Christopher Mitchell: Well Brody, let me come to you and then I'm going to ask the same question to Scott, but so you do a survey, you have a sense all right, in some ways it's like, now you're committed, you've identified and proven that there's a problem, you have to do something about it. What are your next steps then to figure out what is an appropriate step forward?

Brody Bovero: Right, so our survey and we used a third party to do the survey and to make sure it was scientifically valid and statistically valid and that sort of thing, and that way we can actually rely on it and it's justifiable. But once we got the survey results and it was overwhelming that yes, they want more options. They were willing to support the city in this type of arrangement that we have UTOPIA. I think that gave our council the go ahead because there was some discussion amongst the council and some disagreement amongst the council of whether to do an arrangement like this or not. Some of the politics with it was do you do a full city utility where the city is the provider, or do you do an outside provider? And so there were discussions about that. Politically, I think our council is more along the lines of a laissez-faire, they want to have a minimal involvement of government in these services, but we do want to make sure we have it for everybody in the community. So, the UTOPIA model just fit the bill so that it's completely separate from the city as far as the actual provision of the service, but we're ensuring that everybody has access to it.

17:15

Christopher Mitchell: Was that a similar conversation following your survey, Scott?

Scott Darington: Yeah, very similar. What it boiled down to was are we going to build our own network as a city and own it, or are we going to partner with UTOPIA, have them build the network, they're going to own it and then we're just going to, in essence, guarantee that they're going to have enough subscribers to make the payments on it? It's an interesting debate, I've talked to many city managers, some cities have chosen to build their own network, others have chosen to go with a company similar to UTOPIA. We did request for proposal and we talked to different groups, we headed down this road of what we wanted to do and when we presented it to our city council, the majority of them said, "We think that UTOPIA would probably be a better option for us."

Scott Darington: Because there's upsides to owning your own network, there's also downsides and there's upsides with going with UTOPIA and downsides. So, I still have this big PowerPoint with all the upsides and downsides, the best that we could identify. But ultimately our city said, "Let's partner with utopia and head that direction."

Christopher Mitchell: I always appreciate when I'm talking with who takes responsibility for other people and recognizes there's always upsides and downsides, and you got to figure out where to make those hard decisions. It's not all upside. Now, UTOPIA itself is publicly owned. It's an agency that under state law, I think is effectively a municipality itself, it was created by other municipalities. Do you have that same relationship as the founding cities, or is that a different relationship that you have with them?

Brody Bovero: It's actually a little bit different. So, you might say that the founding cities are the quote unquote owners of UTOPIA, where they have the final financial obligation for what UTOPIA does. Cities like Syracuse and Pleasant Grove, we're essentially by contract. So, what that means is we don't benefit from any success that UTOPIA has, but also, we don't experience the failures, if utopia has failures.

Scott Darington: We're not a voting member or anything like that, the original UTOPIA cities are. The original UTOPIA cities, they went through all the pain of getting that all set up and it was a rocky road, if you're familiar with the history of UTOPIA?

Christopher Mitchell: Yes.

Scott Darington: It took them a bit to get to where they are today, but now it's a very attractive option, but no, we're not full fledged member. We're in essence contracting out with them to provide the service.

19:58

Christopher Mitchell: And so the question that I like to wrap up with is along lines of what are we looking forward to? So, you've done this. I'm sure that there's a lot of excitement, there's a lot of work to get to this point, but how will you know in five or 10 years that this has been a success, that it was really worth all of this effort?

Scott Darington: I'm a Pleasant Grove resident. I'm excited to have UTOPIA in my house. And that's going to be a good day, when I can hook up to whatever Internet service provider I choose and have broadband to my home, so I can speak to that personally. The success, I think will be in the take rate, we have to have a certain amount of take rate in our community in order for the service to pay for the bonds have been issued. We don't have any doubts we're going to hit that take rate. We're going to be over the number we need to be. I think the success will be in that I can see our residents after this service is provided coming back to our elected officials and saying, "Thank you for making this happen because here are some things that are better with my life." So, whether I can stream movies better, I can work from home, we can do certain things. Quite honestly, in 10 years, the use of broadband there's things that we don't even know today that is going to be used for and the fact that we have it will be a huge success in and of itself.

Christopher Mitchell: Before we go to Syracuse to answer that question, I'll just note, one of the fun answers I've got from this was as a couple, who said that they're just going to be excited when their children, and this was the case that they had experienced, they had received service from us from a network, their children did not have to wake them up on Saturday mornings to reset the modem when it failed. So, there's all kinds of things people come up with for why their lives are better as a result of getting a high quality service built out. Mayor Gailey, how will you know that this has been successful? Aside from you returning to office?

Mike Gailey: Well, that remains to be seen, but as I said before, I am concerned about our residents, but first of all, I'm concerned about jobs and being right next to Hill Air Force Base, as I mentioned, we're looking for aerospace jobs and we cannot attract them without broadband. We've got to have that there. So our residents, I think, will come to the elected officials and thank them, the taxes haven't gone up and that we've got a better tax base that takes the taxes away from the residents themselves and places it mostly on the back of that aerospace industry and the jobs that people have, they will then have money to spend in Syracuse. Mine is predominantly economic development based. I don't think we can do without broadband. We can't improve our economic development plan without broadband.

22:54

Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely.

Brody Bovero: Yeah, I'd say as people in Syracuse and actually as Americans, we're really good at being consumers and consumers love choice. That's one of the things that we've heard from people, that they hate having to subscribe to one company that can actually provide the service that they need. And so when UTOPIA comes online and our residents have 10 Internet service providers to choose from, I think our elected officials that are going to be ... they're going to receive some praise for that for giving that choice, that competition. I think that's the biggest success for them.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. I wanted to note, when Scott said that he feels very confident about hitting that take rate that's required, I believe multiple cities now have hit those required numbers well inside of the forecast time. So, there's certainly good evidence that there is so much demand out there for this high quality service, that there is quite little risk of not achieving those milestones.

Mike Gailey: There's more risk that I won't be a reelected.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, one of the things that I've found is that elected officials, as they often say about presidents, mayors, everything else is you often will get credit for things you might not deserve and you have to take credit for a whole bunch of things you weren't responsible for. So, that's part of the game, I guess. Really like to thank you all for your time. Thank you, Mayor Gailey. Thank you, city manager of Syracuse, Brody and city manager of Pleasant Grove, Scott. Very much appreciate your time today.

Brody Bovero: Thanks for having us.

Christopher Mitchell: [crosstalk 00:24:40].

Mike Gailey: Thank you.

Scott Darington: Thank you.

24:41

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcastatmuninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handle is @communitynets, follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks, subscribe to this and other podcasts from ILSR, including Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules and the Composting For Community podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arnie Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This was the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening.

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