It’s past time for a fresh batch of straight talk here about citywide fiber optic broadband in American Fork. There’s a lot of information about the City’s project at the City website, and it’s well worth reading. But here we’ll do something the City can’t. We’ll look at the project in the context of the current city council election.

If you’re one of those readers (thank you for reading!) who seeks only information here and prefers to avoid analysis, commentary, and opinion, proceed with caution. There’s information here, but it’s arrayed against incomplete and inaccurate information spread by two of the five American Fork City Council candidates, and there’s some analysis, commentary, and opinion in the mix. But I’ll meet you halfway, sort of. I’ll only name those two candidates at the very end, in case that helps you focus on the information.

I’m firmly in favor of the project, but there are legitimate reasons why well-informed voters might oppose it. As in many other realms of our political discourse, I wish people would argue for or against a thing (or candidate) for legitimate reasons, without thinking they have to abandon truth and context in favor of spin, selective information, and untruth.

I’ve said that before. Call me naive — or perhaps spoiled, lately — but I expect better in American Fork than we sometimes get from other levels of our politics.

The Plan (a.k.a. the Proposal)

The City is moving toward extending high-speed fiber broadband connectivity to the entire city. So far, the project is in a detailed planning stage. There’s been a fair amount of public information and discussion, and some city council votes in open, live-streamed, recorded meetings which were properly noticed according to state law. More city council votes and other actions will follow, if the system is actually to be funded and built. It’s not on the ballot for voters to decide, but it is a key issue in the current city council election.

The City’s proposal is not to become an Internet provider to the whole city. It is to provide the fiber optic infrastructure for the entire city, which the private sector has declined to do, and essentially to create there a citywide marketplace where multiple private-sector providers can offer their services competitively. To participate, providers will have to offer their services citywide — a perfectly reasonable requirement, since the infrastructure will be citywide.

Unlike a proposal the City considered in 2019 — I was on a task force which took a deep dive into that — the current proposal doesn’t treat broadband as a full-fledged utility, where everyone would pay a basic fee whether they used it or not. In the current proposal, the fiber will run everywhere, but only those who want the service will be connected initially. That “drop” from street to residence or business will be free at first. Those who decline connection initially but want to connect later will be charged for the drop.

Facts and Context vs. Opposition Talking Points

A lot of what we hear and read from the proposal’s opponents simply is not true. To put that in slightly more precise terms, two city council candidates are not being straight with us.

(Be advised, as nearly always happens, it takes a lot more words to unpack deceptive sound bites than candidates use to deliver them.)

In a recent post on weaponizing petitions and referenda under the camouflage of a principled commitment to democracy, I created a hypothetical conversation between a city resident and a person who was carrying a petition to stop a fiber project. My point there was not specific to fiber, but I didn’t have to build the fiber arguments from scratch. They’ve been out there a while, not just hypothetically, and not just in American Fork.

Virtually anywhere the subject comes up in the United States, and no matter the structure or details of the proposal, the arguments mustered against it are very much the same. As I wrote above, I’d prefer candidates to offer voters an accurate view of a proposal, then argue for or against it on the basis of truth — truth in context, to be sure. I realize some prioritize their values differently.

In that earlier post, my hypothetical petition carrier gave six reasons to oppose the project. I noted that each contained an untruth, and I promised to explain later. It’s later.

I could as easily use material from the recent candidate debate or the front porch speeches and other communications voters are getting from two candidates.

One bit of housekeeping first: I should explain the quotation marks in the headings which follow. I may or may not have heard the two candidates say exactly those words. Some of my headers are generalized, based on what I’ve heard myself and what other American Fork voters report they were told.

Here we go.

“It will double or triple your taxes.”

The promise of higher taxes if this project goes ahead has come up in various forms. This wording is what one future candidate said about four years ago to city residents in person, face to face, about the fiber broadband plan the City was exploring before COVID. It was false then and it’s false about the current proposal — as he could easily have known if he wished to.

The truth is, there is no plan to raise taxes to fund the proposed system. A bond issue to fund it will be repaid by the system’s own revenues (a “revenue bond,” which requires a vote of the city council, not the public). This depends on a relatively modest “take rate,” the percentage of households and businesses who sign up. You can craft doomsday scenarios in which some taxpayer dollars might have to be used at some point, but the claim that this will double or triple our taxes is as close to outright deception as a prediction about the future can be.

“This service is available from the private sector, so we shouldn’t compete. It’s not government’s job to compete.”

If the two candidates sincerely believe that this is not something local government should do, that’s a reasonable basis for opposing the project. But they wrap their arguments in partial truths and misdirection.

In fact, modern fiber optic broadband service is available through the private sector in most of the city. Presumably this includes the nice neighborhoods where these two candidates live. But the private sector has declined to extend its services to residents and businesses in other parts of the city. Reportedly, the ultimate calculation here is that it wouldn’t return enough profit to the shareholders to extend service across the street here and to the end of the street there.

It is widely but not universally accepted that government may appropriately act where the private sector either underserves the market (in essential matters) or engages in monopolistic practices.

Please, if you missed it above, note that the City’s proposal is not to become an Internet provider to the whole city. It is to provide the fiber optic infrastructure to the entire city, which the private sector has declined to do, and create there essentially a marketplace where multiple private-sector providers can offer their services — but they will have to offer them citywide, which they can, because the city’s infrastructure will be citywide.

Whether that’s a good idea or not is open to debate. But I wait in vain, so far, to hear two candidates move on from their lazy, prefabricated sound bites to discuss conscientiously what is actually proposed.

Before I move to the next section, let’s consider monopolistic practices. Whether the big telecom companies engage in such practices under the law is for lawyers, judges, and bureacrats to decide — and the official vigilance is ongoing there. This much is beyond dispute: the big telecoms are among the two or three most influential lobbies in Washington, DC, and state capitals, including Utah’s. They have managed to push legislation and rules through which make it very difficult for smaller fry, including municipalities, to complete with them.

To my mind, such collaboration between the private sector and government compromises the virtue of the “don’t compete with the private sector” argument.

The bottom line is, the City proposes to create a citywide infrastructure which will enable private market providers to serve the entire City, in part as a response to the private market failing to do so on its own.

“They did these things too quietly. There should have been more public discussion.”

This is another cheap sound bite we hear virtually every time someone doesn’t like what some local government did. Whether there should have been even more public discussion than there was is a matter of opinion, of course. But to suggest that this was all done in the shadows is either intentionally or negligently deceptive. (I will not attempt to guess which.)

This is not the modern United States Congress, where members receive massive bills, often involving massive spending, written by a few staff and lobbyists, so late before a vote that there’s barely time to skim them, let alone study and evaluate them. (Taxation Without Representation, a key grievance behind the American Revolution, is reborn as full-blown Legislation Without Representation.)

State transparency laws govern public meetings and agendas at the City. Meetings and hearings are broadcast live on video and archived for later reference. There’s a newsletter and a website. We haven’t had a local newspaper for years (though some folks are working on that), but even when we did, it almost always reported things after they were done, not as they were being developed and considered. For its part, the City has engaged in better publicity about this project than almost anything I’ve seen them do in the last 25 years.

Anyone who wants to know what’s going on has tools and transparency which citizens of past generations could scarcely dream about. Anyone who says these fiber things were done in the shadows in American Fork in 2023 is selling something.

“Municipal fiber broadband violates the US Constitution”

They use this cheap talking point because the unconstitutionality of many government actions, especially at the federal level, is a sore subject for many voters, including me. But it only works with voters who don’t know the US Constitution, or who do know it but don’t pause to test emotion against what they know.

In the US Constitution the people, by way of the states, grant limited, enumerated powers to the national government. It’s true, I can’t find a single phrase of that document in which the people, via the states, grant the US government the power to take fiber broadband to all the people.

In theory (though not in recent practice) all powers not enumerated in the US Constitution are not assumed or exercised by the federal government. But we’re not talking about the federal government. The Tenth Amendment says all other powers are reserved to the states and the people. In other words, this sound bite is exactly wrong on the law.

“A lot of places have tried this. It never works, and taxpayers end up on the hook for it anyway.”

The candidates making this claim like to point to UTOPIA, and small wonder. UTOPIA made some ridiculous decisions early and became a multi-hundred-million-dollar train wreck. Later, they switched to a sane business model. (For a tech policy geek that was a fascinating story to hear from the people behind the change, if you ever had the chance to hear them.) Now UTOPIA is the relatively orderly, functioning aftermath of a train wreck. I use it at work in West Valley City almost every day of the week.

The debt’s still there, and every new community which signs up gets to participate in it. They’ve done some things to sweeten their offers, but this is a big reason why American Fork officials have rejected UTOPIA’s overtures time and again.

Contemporary opponents also point to American Fork’s initial foray into citywide broadband, which started out as SwitchPoint (a private venture), then became AirSwitch, and then the City bought it. After several painful years . . . well, that’s a longer story. Now it’s private and called AFConnect. I still use it at home. It works better than some folks’ (not quite) 5g from Xfinity et al. It’s mostly copper, though, not fiber. It’s faster than a modem on a phone line, or DSL for that matter, but it’s like molasses on a cold day compared to a good fiber optic connection.

Early on in this saga, the Utah legislature, lobbied heavily by the big telecoms (like every other state legislature), made American Fork’s original plan to run the system illegal. Spanish Fork was slightly ahead, timewise, and their similar plan was grandfathered (allowed to continue). Ask our two Prefab Sound Bite Candidates (hereafter PSBCs, because I just decided the world needs one more acronym) what they think of the system down there and how it’s going. If they know, they won’t want to talk about it. If they don’t know, well . . .

Ask them about Lehi too.

AirSwitch/AFConnect absolutely did cost the taxpayers some money. What we usually don’t talk about is how much money it saved American Fork residents and businesses. Comcast accelerated its plans to wire up American Fork by several years because of AirSwitch. And when they came, their residential prices were about half in American Fork what they were across the road in Highland. Many American Fork residents saved hundreds of dollars per year because the city had municipal broadband, even if they signed up for Comcast instead — and despite the City’s venture being a partial failure. That’s important nuance — and a significant upside — I haven’t heard from the PSBCs.

A lot of communities around the nation have sunk a lot of money into broadband projects which didn’t go very well. That’s true. Other communities have figured out how to make it work — avoiding, for example, the copper-mine-size pit UTOPIA fell into.

I wonder: have the PSBCs studied any of those more successful systems carefully, in forming their opinions about American Fork’s proposal? I have. The people behind this plan have. But I’ve listened in vain for a single syllable from either of those candidates to suggest there might be a reality out there that is broader and more diverse than UTOPIA.

“Fiber is old technology, soon to be replaced by 5g, 6g, or maybe even 10g. We shouldn’t make a long-term commitment to it.”

Fiber optic technology has been around for a while, it’s true. It’s a proven technology — if it were new they’d oppose it for that — but it’s more than proven. A lot of people who claim to know technology don’t know:

  • There’s been a fairly steady — ultimately quite dramatic — improvement in how much data we can transfer over existing fiber, by using multiple frequencies of light simultaneously.
  • Fiber optic cable isn’t just faster than copper, with a higher throughput. It’s more durable — it lasts longer — and the way it’s buried these days, it’s usually possible to replace a bad section of cable without excavation.
  • Real 5g relies heavily on fiber to connect all the little transmitters (nodes), which can only be several hundred feet apart at most.
  • A lot of what the big telecoms are selling as 5g is just slightly souped-up 4g, not the full-blown 5g as we knew it in the tech world before the marketing departments took over.
  • For broadband at home or office, so-called 5g wireless Internet service tends to be uncertain in practice. It may work beautifully at good speeds for part of the day, until there’s more traffic for more users, and then it may be all but unusable. (I have recent anecdotes.)
  • Unlike 5g, fiber doesn’t fill the air with microwaves — which haven’t been proven (the way 5g uses them) to cause health problems, so far as I know. But the corporate pressure not to prove that is so massive that it’s starting to make some people suspicious. Communities here and there are rebelling against having 5g towers (nodes) in their neighborhoods. Besides, while we wait for more research on the health effects of those 5g microwaves, since when did actual science trump a good, emotion-based NIMBY movement? (NIMBY is “not in my back yard,” a gentler cousin to BANANA, “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything.”) Opposition to 5g is out there.

The PSBCs, who’d also prefer not to borrow a single dime to pay for roads — one of whom says we’ll always have bad roads, because good ones aren’t even remotely cost-effective — also oppose the fiber project because they don’t want any more roads dug up to bury things like fiber optic cable. If you and I see a subtle contradiction there, we’re probably not the only ones.

Yes, there would be some digging. But if you can get their attention, ask them how much less invasive are the relatively new micro-trenching techniques that would be widely used. Ask them what percentage of the cable could be run above ground on existing poles. See if they know or care.

Then ask them, if fiber is not the best broadband technology for the foreseeable future, why are some private companies even now laying fiber in (admittedly nicer-than-average) residential neighborhoods in places like Bluffdale, where there’s a project which began in August and is expected to run through 2024?

Bonus: “Government shouldn’t pick winners and losers.”

This argument wasn’t in my hypothetical doorstep conversation in that earlier post, but it’s out there, as a corollary to arguments about government not competing with private businesses.

Usually, when we speak in economic discussions about government picking winners and losers (or not), we’re talking about competing companies. That doesn’t apply here. Here, in response to the private market’s failure to serve some parts of the city, American Fork proposes to create a citywide infrastructure, essentially a marketplace, where companies can compete with each other to serve households and residences across the entire city.

If we pivot slightly, we could speak of government picking winning and losing technologies. But that itself is the market operating. Like every other potential customer, the City simply looks at the available technologies and decides that one of them is best for the city’s needs.

Meanwhile, this argument ignores the fact that in the current telecommunications market, government already picks winners and losers, notably through anticompetitive measures adopted to suppresss competition, in response to sustained and intense lobbying by the big telecom companies.

Here’s an article by someone else about that lobbying, its scope, and its fruits. It’s a good read but merits a language warning. It mentions a municipal broadband opponent, the Utah Taxpayers Association, which is an ally of one of our candidates, and its “direct financial and even obvious managerial tethers to regional telecom giants CenturyLink (now Lumen) and Comcast.”

You may enjoy this quotation. One link in it is about a Harvard study.

[D]ata consistently shows that community-owned broadband networks (whether municipal, cooperative, or built on the back of the city-owned utility) provide better, faster, cheaper service than regional monopolies. Such networks routinely not only provide the fastest service in the country, they do so while being immensely popular among consumers. They’re locally-owned and staffed, so they’re more accountable to locals. And they’re just looking to break even, not make a killing.

So this prefab sound bite fails too, on accuracy and sincerity.

Vote Your Way, Of Course

Vote as you think wise, of course. Vote for Ken Sumsion and Jeff Shorter on the basis of their opposition to the fiber project, if you think that’s best. Jump on their referendum bandwagon, which is surely coming, if they can’t torpedo the project through the established mechanisms of representative government.

(A recent effort in Bountiful to force a referendum on municipal broadband failed to gather enough signatures. )

All I ask is this: Before you do that, get some better information than the misinformation the PSBCs are peddling. Don’t be manipulated. Come to your opposing view based on reality, not lazy, prefab sound bites. Then, if you oppose the project, God speed. You’ll be doing it for sound reasons. You’ll be doing it based on truth.

Thanks for reading.

Image credit: generated by DALL·E 2