This is the second of a three part series, in which we examine the current state of the UTOPIA network, how it got there, and the choices it faces going forward. Part I can be read here and Part III here.
With the status quo untenable, no easy exit strategy, and political opposition mounting, UTOPIA appeared besieged in early 2013. Then along came Macquarie, which started studying the network and putting together a proposal for a partnership. The full Milestone 1 report from Macquarie is here, but in case you aren’t prepared to read 100 pages the broad outlines are as follows:
- Macquarie will invest $300 million of its own capital to aggressively finish the network build out in 30 months, finally reaching every address in every participating city without a connection fee (UTOPIA had been charging residents in some areas who wanted service around $3,000 to make the expensive last mile connections to individual addresses).
- Macquarie would be responsible for network maintenance and periodic upgrades, as well as meeting performance benchmarks. Cost overruns in any of these areas would be paid by Macquarie.
- Sharing of network revenue (from charging ISPs for transport) between Macquarie and UTOPIA, which could be used to pay down the existing bond debt.
- At the end of a 30 year period of operations run by the public-private partnership, the network would revert fully to public ownership.
- All homes would be eligible to receive "free" basic service, with 3 mbps download/upload speeds and a 20GB monthly data cap. For all other services, businesses and homes could choose from any of the 8 ISPs currently operating on UTOPIA, all of which offer affordable gigabit speeds. With a larger, complete network, it is likely that UTOPIA would attract new service providers as well.
- Imposition of a monthly $18-20 utility fee, assessed to every address in the UTOPIA area over the next 30 years, regardless of whether or not they are network customers. This is why we put the "free" basic service in quotations. The utility fee would be structured with a 50% discount for apartments or other multiple-unit addresses, a 100% premium for businesses, and an option for each city to offer a hardship waiver for the indigent or discount for seniors.
In sum, this is a huge infusion of capital from a private company that could remove the risks associated with running, maintaining, and upgrading the network from the member cities, while potentially offering them a source of revenue to pay down the existing bonds. It also offers universal basic internet access, and the chance for everyone to purchase high speeds and premium services (voice and video) in a truly competitive market running on state-of-the-art infrastructure. The downside, of course, is the monthly utility fee, which is already proving contentious, as well as ceding control of the network to Macquarie for 30 years.
In the third and final article on this Macquarie series, we’ll look at the political implications and weigh the costs and benefits of the utility fee compared to what these cities are already paying.