Fiber for American Fork, Part 3: Responses to 22 Concerns and Objections

This is the third of my planned blog posts about a proposal the American Fork City Council is studying to extend fiber optic connectivity to every residence and business in American Fork as a utility. It’s not on the November ballot, but incumbent candidates will cast key votes as city council members.

The first post gave a quick overview and also mentioned my service on an ad hoc mayoral task force, which examined the proposal deeply from several angles and reported recommendations and concerns to the American Fork City Council. The second post listed several key benefits we can anticipate, if we build the system.

We all come to matters of local, state, and national government from different perspectives. While I favor the proposal and believe the City can execute well enough in this case, it’s possible for intelligent, well-meaning people (among others) to disagree.

I’ve been collecting reasons people have cited for opposing the project. Here I’ll list that collection, add a few more I haven’t heard yet but probably will, and tell you briefly what I think of each. Some are better than others.

If I don’t list your reason or you think I don’t do it justice, your dissenting opinion is welcome in the comments.

I’ll add a shorter section listing concerns the task force reported to the city council in June, as part of our larger report recommending the project.

Actual and Expected Objections

Please bear in mind that these are not my reasons for opposing the project, because I don’t oppose the project. However, some of them are my own concerns (among others’), which I had to weigh when evaluating the proposal.

They’re in no particular order here.

Objection #1: I believe in limited government — and this is just more government.

My own belief in limited government doesn’t mean I think government should never do anything it’s not already doing. And I don’t take the ample girth of our state government or the grotesquely metastasized size and scope of the federal government to mean that our city government shouldn’t do something new, if it’s smart.

My belief in limited government does mean that new things require more scrutiny before we empower government to undertake them. In this case, the city council is taking a long, hard look at the proposal — several months long — before a possible final vote in October or November.

If we’re going to do something new, I like doing it at a level of government which is close to the people, and which doesn’t have the power to print money to buy our votes, as the federal government does. So if we’re doing it, let’s do it locally.

Reasonable people may feel otherwise.

Objection #2: We should leave this to the private sector. They’ll do it more efficiently, and it’s not fair to compete with private businesses.

I’ve written in previous posts that the telecommunications sector isn’t entirely private. The large telecoms pay vast sums of money to lobby state and federal governments to serve and protect their (the large telecoms’) interests, so it’s more of a public/private hybrid — perhaps even an example of capitalism gone bad. I have few qualms about competing with them locally under these conditions.

As to efficiency, I’ve also explained previously how this part of the so-called private market naturally underserves American Fork, and I’ve noted that the proposal will actually create a citywide market, which will encourage private businesses to participate — but citywide, and on terms more favorable to residents and businesses.

LightHub Fiber - laptop

Objection #3: I’m heavily invested in one or more of the major telecommunications companies, and municipal broadband doesn’t help my stock prices.

I can’t argue with this one. Forcing the big telecoms to compete by lowering prices and improving service certainly poses the risk of eating into their profits, and therefore your stock prices. If that’s what matters most to you, you should definitely oppose the project.

Objection #4: I barely think the public utilities we have are justified. I certainly don’t want to add one.

If you’re that much of a theoretical libertarian, I won’t be able to persuade you otherwise. And you won’t soon be persuaded, as I am, that municipalities without such a utility will be at a competitive disadvantage in the near future, if they aren’t already.

Objection #5: They promised us lower water bills when we put in the pressurized irrigation system, and our water bills are much higher. I can’t believe anything they say about LightHub Fiber after that.

This one drives me up the wall. I listened carefully during the pressurized irrigation (secondary water) discussions several years ago, and I don’t remember hearing such a promise from any official or quasi-official source. I’m not saying you didn’t hear it from someone, but there was no way what they were proposing could have done anything but increase our water bills substantially.

We had two choices going forward: build a secondary water system to use relatively abundant irrigation water and conserve culinary water for culinary use, or expand the culinary water system and add a treatment plant, so we could reuse our culinary water and keep watering our lawns with it. The secondary system was somewhat cheaper — but both were substantially more expensive than the unsustainable situation we were in. Besides that, water bills back then were subsidized by general tax revenues, and we needed to fix that too.

For a more detailed discussion of this, see the first half of this blog post from the 2015 election season: “Water Rates, Debt, and That Cash Reserve.”

To me the twin 1990s cautionary tales of mismanaged culinary water rates and coming to pressurized irrigation a decade too late tell us not that we shouldn’t add a new utility, but that we should insist on fiscal transparency for all utilities and not put off big decisions until someone else finally makes them years later at several times the cost.

But again, reasonable people may disagree.

Objection #6: Citywide fiber would encourage further population growth, when we should be doing everything we can to resist and slow the growth which is crowding the Wasatch Front.

I don’t think we can legally prevent growth, and I don’t think well of American Fork City’s long-standing reputation for difficult people and processes, which are de facto resistance to growth (and which are changing, I think).

But we can manage growth to a degree, and we should. See my previous post for thoughts on influencing growth to our benefit, and on reducing some of its fiscal and environmental impacts by facilitating telecommuting and home-based businesses with a citywide fiber optic utility.

Objection #7: Fiber will be obsolete almost before the system is completed. The future is wireless.

The current version of the wireless future is 5G, which (a) is heavily dependent on fiber optic infrastructure, (b) isn’t coming to most of American Fork anytime soon, if it ever does, and (c) requires antennas and transmitters every few hundred feet.

Meanwhile, a single fiber optic strand can carry a lot more data than it presently does. The technology is well established but continually improving. Every time we connect new equipment which can transmit more colors (frequencies) of light over each strand, we multiply that strand’s data capacity. It’s not like electrical transmission over metal wires, where you need a bigger wire to carry more.

If someday the current fiber optic cable becomes obsolete, we can run new fiber through the conduits. The conduits themselves are a large part of the proposed system’s costs, and we’ll already have those, if we’ve built the system.

That said, if your faith is in 5G and wireless generally, it makes sense for you to dislike the proposal.

Objection #8: This project will be approved, if it is approved, by a vote of the city council — but they really should put it to the voters. This is America.

The voices I’m hearing say this are some of the same folks who stridently insist that the United States is a republic, not a democracy. Now they want more direct democracy? (Historically, the key characteristics of a republic are “not a monarchy” and a sense that people are citizens, not subjects, but modern debates have distorted it into a synonym of representative government. See my “What Is a Republic?”)

In my view, we (democratically!) elect our representatives to explore complex and difficult issues such as this proposal, to hear and weigh our input, and then to do what they think is best for the city and its people. This is their job. This is what we elected them for.

Some have said that this is too big a decision for our representatives — but it’s about half the size of the annual city budget, which the city council approves, and hardly anyone shows up to the meetings where they do that.

If you’re that committed to pure democracy, fine. Just don’t say it’s un-American when representative government does its job.

And if you’re just using the democracy argument cynically to obstruct the city council’s consideration of the proposal, don’t mistake where you’re standing for the moral high ground.

Objection #9: Government should not borrow money. Period.

I oppose excessive government debt. I oppose going into debt to pay recurring costs, such as road maintenance (which isn’t the same as road repair, when maintenance has been chronically inadequate). I favor repaying debts ahead of schedule, where possible.

But sometimes borrowing, within wise and reasonable limits, is the most prudent and cost-effective approach. Had we borrowed in 2013 to jump-start our road repairs, we’d have done a lot of the needed work when construction costs were a lot lower, and we’d have saved money in the long run.

Back then, some people said government should run like a household, and therefore we shouldn’t borrow for anything. Every time I heard someone say that, I wanted to ask if he or she had ever taken out a mortgage to buy a home, or carried a car loan or an educational loan. But the extreme rhetoric won the day. It would be better to drive on gravel than borrow a dime to fix the roads, said one of the candidates we elected in that collective democratic brain cramp.

If we’d addressed our foreseeable water issues responsibly in the 1990s at a far lower cost, rather than waiting until we couldn’t put it off any more, our debt level and our water bills would be much lower. That said, I think that for the last 15 years or so the City has managed debt sensibly.

But that’s me. If you’re against borrowing on principle (sorry, the pun is unfortunate), you won’t find any of this persuasive.

Objection #10: Won’t this just put us in a worse position, next time the economy goes south?

I think it’s more likely to strengthen our position, because we’ll be better positioned to compete with other cities for what is scarce in economic downturns: jobs, growth, economic activity, and the resulting tax revenues. Utah as a whole enjoyed a similar advantage over nearly all other states during the Great Recession and the snail’s-pace recovery which followed.

It’s like that grimly delightful adage about running from an attacking grizzly bear: You don’t need to be faster than the bear. You just need to be faster than at least one of the people you’re with.

Objection #11: I don’t trust City officials and employees, past, present, or future, to run a high-tech system competently.

I trust the City as currently constituted to find honest, competent, qualified people to build and run it for us. And I’m willing to trust the voters not to elect city officials in the future who will jeopardize the system’s technical and revenue performance for political, fiscal, or ideological reasons.

Yes, that second one is a leap of faith for me — because the risks are real. The first one is a leap of faith too, but for me a smaller one, because the current leadership is excellent.

Objection #12: The Internet is evil. We shouldn’t let government encourage, let alone expand, evil.

The Internet is a tool, neither good nor evil. It’s like a knife. I can use it to feed my family or to kill my brother. A great deal of good is done on the Internet — many sorts of good, by millions and millions of people — and a great deal more can be done. I know there’s plenty of evil there too, but I’m quite fond of the tool.

One guy’s opinion.

Objection #13: People on fixed incomes can’t afford this, but they’ll have to pay anyway.

There will be a mechanism for opting out of most or all of the $10 utility fee on the basis of economic hardship, for the sake of those who really cannot afford it. For those on limited incomes who currently pay for broadband connectivity, it should actually save money, whether they stay with their current provider, which will have to lower prices to compete, or switch to the municipal system.

It’s not a perfect comparison, but the existence of the Airswitch system (now AFConnect, more or less, which many residents don’t realize is a private company) caused Comcast to accelerate its plans to come to American Fork by a few years, and when it came, its prices were about half what they were in Highland, which didn’t have a competing system.

That said, this concern loomed large with the ad hoc task force which explored this proposal. Our favorable recommendation was conditioned upon that opt-out I mentioned, for cases of genuine economic hardship.

For good or ill, it’s a fact of community life that some things which will help most or nearly all of the community will not help absolutely everyone. But in this case I expect substantial good for the vast majority, and only very small harm to a very few.

Objection #14: We should be focused on fixing our roads, not using City funds for new projects.

LightHub Fiber will be self-funding. Even conservative projections include no ongoing drain on City coffers — and a convincing likelihood of the opposite.

I suppose, if you think the cost of studying the proposal — in time, effort, and money — is objectionable, because you really think every resource we can bring to bear should be devoted to roads, this might be a reasonable objection.

But if you’re just piling this one on because you oppose the project and you’re throwing everything into your argument but the kitchen sink, you’re just muddying the waters.

pothole - LightHub fiber

Objection #15: I don’t want us tearing up the streets again to put in fiber optic cable.

There will be some disruption of streets, if the fiber system is built. However, fiber conduit is a lot smaller than water lines, and some newer microtrenching technologies may dramatically reduce this problem in areas where they can be used. And (though the engineering isn’t done, and won’t be, unless the proposal passes) a lot of the fiber will likely be run above ground on existing poles.

Let’s face it: a lot of the streets which may be disrupted already need to be rebuilt, so there’s little or no loss in those cases.

It’s a trade-off. I can’t deny that.

Objection #16: It will cost more than they tell us. It always does.

If you’re thinking of water bills, see my response above.

If your concern is more generaly, one of the legislative poster children for this argument comes from the 1930s, when the Social Security Act was passed with promises that the payroll tax to fund it would never exceed one percent of income.

Yeah, it happens. It happens big, and it happens a lot.

I was pleased to discover that the fiscal projections for the proposed fiber system are deliberately quite conservative in multiple dimensions — both to allow for economic downturns and to accommodate costs which are not entirely predictable. For example, repaying the proposed bond is based solely on the $10 utility fee (double that for businesses), not on additional revenues from those who upgrade. This is pretty solid revenue for guaranteeing a bond issue, and that helps with the interest rate too.

There is also the observed tendency for high-tech products to get less expensive over time. This may put downward pressure on costs. It’s small comfort where government is involved, I suppose.

There are other safeguards: Because that utility fee is itself sufficient to retire the bond, it won’t have to be increased to achieve that. And users who upgrade will pay an additional fee, but this will be through private service providers, so competition will tend to restrain those costs.

So I think the proposal manages this risk acceptably. If you examine it carefully and decide otherwise, I won’t assume you’re unreasonable.

Objection #17: Rather than inventing our own system, we should just join UTOPIA.

I’ll be devoting a separate blog post to this one. For now, suffice it to say that, if the question the mayor posed to the task force had been, Should we join UTOPIA or do nothing, I’m pretty sure we’d have said do nothing. We’d have said it emphatically.

The short explanation is that UTOPIA would have American Fork assuming all the risk of its participation, but sending all the revenue outside the city, to UTOPIA, for the foreseeable future. Good deal for UTOPIA, bad deal for American Fork.

Objection #18: Studies say municipal broadband doesn’t make fiscal sense.

If you’ve read a lot of those studies, you might have noticed what I noticed. The studies funded by the big telecoms say that municipal broadband doesn’t make fiscal sense. The studies not funded by the big telecoms tend to say the opposite, and some of them absolutely dismantle the methodologies and conclusions of the negative studies.

Objection #19: Why should we trust the City, when the Airswitch system turned into such an albatross, and we still owe some money on it?

This was one of my primary concerns when the task force began its work — as I told Mayor Frost, when he was recruiting me to the task force. But I promised to give the proposal a thorough hearing, ask all my questions — and then decide.

It deserves a longer explanation, but the short answer is, the technology is dramatically different, more robust, and well established (not a proof of concept). The financial and business models are dramatically different. Treating it as a utility has some considerable advantages to taxpayers and the City. And the network architecture will be much different.

But let’s give Airswitch its due. Yes, we still owe over a million dollars on its original debt. The current proposal will retire that. But it brought broadband to American Fork years ahead of anyone else’s schedule, and it brought the big telecoms in sooner to compete, and much less expensively. The value to the city — residents, business, etc. — probably far exceeds the costs over the years, despite the large headaches.

Objection #20: “If the City forces me to pay for this, I will sue the City, because it’s a waste of money.”

That’s an actual quotation.

It’s a relatively free, pathologically litigious country, but you’ll still need a better basis for a lawsuit than “it’s a waste of money,” if you want to win or, as an alternative, punish the City (and therefore all taxpayers, including yourself) with large legal bills. Speaking of wasting money.

Objection #21: “This city does not care about the people, just a few special interest groups. Also, if the people don’t get to vote on this, it is taxation without representation.”

That’s another actual quotation. I added the punctuation.

Incumbent officials’ alleged loyalty to unspecified, malevolent “special interests” is a lazy argument. Tell us which officials are under what sort of influence by which specific interest groups, and given us some evidence — or quit libeling (in this case) the very good city leaders the rest of us had the good sense and good fortune to elect. (I haven’t liked all of our City’s elected officials over the years, but we’re six-for-six right now, electing good ones.)

As to “taxation without representation,” there’s no part of that that’s true. The system will be self-funding, if built, so it’s not a matter of taxation. And the decision will be made by the people’s elected representatives, the city council.

In historical terms the American colonists’ complaint, which made “no taxation without representation” an iconic American doctrine, was that taxes were imposed on the colonies without the colonies having any representation in Parliament — not that they were imposed by a representative body, without a popular vote of the subjects residing in the colonies.

Objective #22: I don’t trust government to do anything.

This is not the first trust issue I’ve listed here. Trust issues keep coming up in different variations.

A healthy suspicion of government is essential to a free people. But I wonder: Do you instantly and completely stop trusting the people you advocated and voted for, the moment they take office? How does that make sense?

If you have your head in the game, studying issues, talking to people involved, and examining all sides of issues, not just your own, then maybe you have a case, if you see — not just assume — that a specific official’s words, motives, or judgment ought not be trusted.

At the other extreme, if you didn’t even vote in our last two City elections — because the candidates are all corrupt anyway, or for some less bigoted reason — I’m not certain you have much standing for pointing fingers.

A Request

For the sake of good government and healthy debate, please study the proposal conscientiously, so your support or opposition can be fact-based and consistent with your political philosophy, not based on assumptions, misinformation, hype, or manipulation.

Once you’ve done so, if you support the project, fine. If you oppose it, fine. Either way, you may gain a new appreciation for our five elected representatives, who have to study it even more diligently and weigh many views and considerations, before deciding how to vote on it.

The Task Force’s Stated Concerns

Here is an excerpt from the task force’s report to the city council. You’ll see that we considered even the political implications and risks.

“The task force believes that the following concerns must be addressed, if the proposed utility is to bring the promised and needed benefits to American Fork….

  1. Best-in-class, 24/7 customer support must be established and maintained. We are also concerned about the ability of the city utility to enforce a high level of customer service from the ISPs which will inhabit the system.
  2. Marketing must be ongoing and intelligent, and the City cannot rely on ISPs which join the system to provide adequate marketing to insure an excellent take (participation) rate.
  3. Initial and ongoing public support for the proposal depends on effective public education. There must be a thorough, transparent, multichannel, persistent effort to educate the public in the coming months, or this proposal could both fail and have serious political repercussions — not just for present officials, but for the cause of good local government in the future.
  4. Municipal broadband and fiber systems are often top-heavy with management in their initial years, which delays and impedes a system’s ability to cover its own costs. It is important that the City fully absorb this lesson, in part by employing experts who have been involved in successful municipal fiber projects elsewhere.
  5. To be viable for businesses, the utility must offer the Service Level Agreements which businesses require.
  6. We are concerned in the long term that future City leaders and officials may be tempted to economize in customer service and other crucial areas, in order to divert funds to other purposes. However, we understand that a present council cannot bind a future council.

“The task force believes that, with the proper leadership, all of these concerns except the last can be answered. The last may best be averted by the fiber optic utility’s long-term success.”

How Can I Possibly … ?

If you now — or still — wonder how I, a self-professed limited-government, Tocqueville conservative, can possibly support such a proposal, allow me one more attempt to explain.

I am willing to pay the price to live in a community with adequate roads, public schools, fire and police services, and basic protections for neighborhoods and property values, such as zoning and nuisance laws; with public utilities such as electricity, gas, water, and sewer service; and with amenities such as parks, arts programs, and sports and recreation programs. All these are part of the infrastructure which supports a modern economy and a high quality of life — as I measure such things. (The Declaration of Independence’s term for quality of life is “pursuit of happiness.”)

I am persuaded:

  • that a fiber optic utility is a desirable and practical addition to that infrastructure;
  • that we will soon consider it an essential piece of infrastructure, whether we build it or not; and
  • that, if we reject it, we’ll begin to see people we would otherwise wish to keep in our city leave it. They will vote with their feet and take their families, their businesses, their energy and enthusiasm, and their substantial fraction of the tax base somewhere else.

Again, it’s one guy’s opinion. What’s yours? And if you’re already opposed to the proposal, did I miss your reason? Feel free to share it in the comments.

Thanks for reading.

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