While UTOPIA Fiber denounces ‘attack campaign,’ former lawmaker calls it ‘educative’
NoGovInternet.com has been financing TV and mail ads with out-of-state dark money
It started with TV ads decrying a municipality-funded fiber network. Now, some cities along the Wasatch Front are receiving mailers with the same message.
“UTOPIA is a dystopia,” read the flyers against the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA), a community-owned fiber optic network funded by different Utah municipalities.
They are the product of a $1 million dark money campaign from an out-of-state group, said Roger Timmerman, executive director and CEO of UTOPIA. The ads and mailers read that they are paid by NoGovInternet.com, a project by the Domestic Policy Caucus, a Minnesota nonprofit that lobbies for conservative initiatives such as national popular vote.
UTOPIA builds fiber infrastructure owned by cities that different internet companies can use to provide faster internet. It’s a demand that the private sector has failed to meet, Timmerman said.
NoGovInternet.com messages in the campaign include “partnering with UTOPIA increases costs to pay their debt,” and “for over 20 years the government has wanted hundreds of millions of dollars trying to prop up UTOPIA … And it’s still not complete.”
Timmerman called the efforts “garbage” and “misinformation.” He added he was confused, as there are no legislative or ballot efforts related to building out fiber infrastructure in cities. And, in his view, things in UTOPIA “are better than ever.”
“We can’t force any community to be part of us. But we continue to get invited to participate in more and more cities as they see our success,” Timmerman said, emphasizing that customer surveys show a high level of satisfaction among 62,000 users in the 20 Utah cities UTOPIA serves. The demand for UTOPIA is also climbing everyday, he said, as it provides up to 10 Gbps (or gigabits per second), the fastest residential internet.
The campaign is reaching cities that already have UTOPIA infrastructure and some others that could adopt a city-led model, such as Herriman, which is considering building its own fiber infrastructure independent from UTOPIA.
There are about 450 community-owned networks across the county and 50 went online last year, Timmerman said, which demonstrates that the model is a growing trend.
“They are targeting, potentially, our growth with misinformation,” Timmerman said.
He broke down the claims listed on the flyers, saying most of them are wrong. UTOPIA has finished the network it promised, he said, and it uses different kinds of bonds to finance its operations. He added that some cities haven’t had to pay anything because the project has been able to pay its initial debt with its revenue.
“They’ll point to the very early years of UTOPIA and say, ‘because they had some struggles when they first started, UTOPIA is a failure’ that project (was) relatively small,” he said, “and since 2009, we’ve done many, many times larger projects across many, many cities. And all of those are successful.”
An education campaign?
While UTOPIA calls it an “attack campaign,” those running it deem it as “educative.”
Former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, who represents NoGovInternet.com in Utah, said the campaign is part of a national effort, and while he said he doesn’t know who funds it, “you can conclude the private sector (are) probably the ones that are funding it.”
“(The campaign is) warning Utahns that if you get a city or cities that get into the infrastructure of how you deliver high-speed internet, you run the risk that they’re not putting the same research and development, they’re not progressing, or bringing the most advanced technology to the market,” Hughes said, “because that’s not their primary function as a city government.”
There has been “aggressive traditional media buys on commercials,” and in the coming weeks and months, there will be more grassroots efforts to diffuse that message, Hughes said.
Hughes said that NoGovInternet.com’s intent is not to unwind any of the current agreements, but to advocate for “the immediate enhancement of opportunities for infrastructure.”
Draper, for example, opted to make a permit agreement with Google Fiber to build out the network after negotiations with UTOPIA fell through.
Internet doesn’t match up with utilities like water and sewer, Hughes said, because those services are not in the open market.
He also argued, what UTOPIA does is not essential.
“They’re not in communities where they don’t have any (internet service providers). They’re going into communities that are highly populated, where there’s already existing infrastructure (but) might not be as fast,” he said. “But, if it’s essential, the way they’re saying, you would see them in Piute County.”
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