UTOPIA Confronts Critics, Continues New Strategy

More towns in Utah are deciding whether to support UTOPIA's new plan to expand the network and recover from the significant errors of the first managers. Under the new management, UTOPIA has added new ISPs and thousands of new subscribers, a significant turn around for a network many had written off as a failure.

Unfortunately, UTOPIA has too much debt and no capital to expand the network to bring new subscribers online. As we have consistently maintained, building next-generation networks is challenging in the best of circumstances - and the circumstances around the towns in Utah are far from ideal.

Most of the information in this post comes directly or indirectly from the Free UTOPIA blog which has excellent independent coverage of the network (as well as stinging critiques of wasted opportunities like the broadband stimulus).

I strongly recommend following FreeUTOPIA, but I wanted to comment on some of the recent developments.

As UTOPIA and some member cities have formed a new agency to fund further expansion. Five cities have agreed to be part of the new Utah Infrastructure Agency with at least 2 deciding against and more still considering what they want to do. The Salt Lake Tribune has tepidly endorsed the plan (which involves some changes regarding rogue providers - something I want to follow up on).

The Utah Taxpayers Association (which is funded by Qwest and Comcast, among others) decided to mount a big protest in Orem to convince the City to abandon UTOPIA. Rather than simply waiting to see what effect the rally would have, UTOPIA responded decisively.

The Utah “Taxpayers” Association thought it would get an upper hand with a BBQ in Orem just before the city council voted on a new construction bond. Unfortunately for them, the plan backfired when UTOPIA made a surprise appearance at the event with their “mobile command center” and started actually talking directly with the meeting attendees, many of whom had no opinion of UTOPIA yet and came to get more information. According to my sources, about half of the 250 or so attendees ended up registering their interest in UTOPIA services, a major coup for the network that upstaged their most vocal opponent.

This is the latest in a long line of lessons that all point in the same direction: communities must boldly defend their right to self-determination. When confronted with well-funded incumbent opposition, some will tend to ignore the lies in hopes that they will fall on deaf ears or out of the mistaken belief that responding to them would legitimize even ludicrous claims.

Lies that go unanswered become truths in the minds of many. And while claims like this may seem unbelievable, they offer opportunities:

One of the questions alluded to the city requirements for lawn watering during dry summer conditions. The question generally was phrased as “Since the city only allows you to water your lawn only three days per week, how do you feel about the city offering you cable TV service where you could only watch television three days per week?”

An outrageous question like this offers an opportunity for media attention - and the more media attention a community network can get for free, the better - which is key to educating people on the merits of a network.

As this rally in Orem demonstrates, what may be perceived by some as a monolithic block of anti-community network folks can really be a disparate group of people. In this case, many people who came out were unsure about UTOPIA and just wanted information. If UTOPIA reps and supporters had not rolled into the rally with the command center, those folks would have heard only one side and many would have undoubtedly talked to neighbors and friends about it - spreading the deceits of the Utah Taxpayers Association.

Groups like UTA have tremendous bankrolls, but when confronted with the truth, can be exposed as a sham for the monied interests they represent.