Totally Un-Wired | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Totally Un-Wired 

Salt Lake County coughed up $55 million for a soccer stadium, but Salt Lake City couldn’t set aside $70 million for a fiber-optic network. Should that trouble us?

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Give credit where credit is due. By hook or by crook, Real Salt Lake owner Dave Checketts pumped enough flesh, scheduled enough lunch dates and whipped up enough tantrums to see the blueprint of his beloved soccer stadium come into eventual reality.

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In a decision that induced head scratching countywide, the Salt Lake County Council approved $55 million in subsidies for a 20,000-seat stadium in exchange for a $7.5 million donation from Real Salt Lake for a youth soccer recreational complex. Why head-scratching? Well, weeks ago, the same County Council rejected two other proposals subsidizing Real’s stadium. The first would have cost the county an estimated $87.5 million, while the second would have cost an estimated $70.1 million. A $15 million savings, plus a few pitches for the youngsters, finally did the trick.

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All this is old news, I know. But take the long run of Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City into account. More specifically, consider our economic future as a community. Anyone professing faith in our free-market economy scoffs at any notion that government has any business subsidizing private ventures that should live or die by market forces. If the market alone can’t support it, that fact certainly doesn’t bode well for prudent investment of public monies, does it? Well, not always. Every once in a while, we decide that certain vital endeavors need a little push to get off the ground, gain critical mass and eventually become a benefit to the greatest possible number of people. So it was that in the 1860s, Congress, convinced that railroads would be integral to the future of our nation, gave land grants and helped lay tracks for our transcontinental railroad system. Taxpayer money helped build highways for the transportation of goods. And, later, government helped build and install the copper network that put the Bell phone companies in place.

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For these reasons, it’s more than a little galling that our elected representatives see MLS soccer as somehow more worthy of public subsidies than a state-of-the-art telecommunications system for the transportation of any developed economy’s most precious commodity: information. Invest in a stadium seating 20,000 soccer fanatics who already live in Salt Lake County? It took a bit of convincing, but we fell for it. Invest in an information network that will drive the economic future of our state? Uh-uh.

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I am, of course, talking about Salt Lake City’s ill-informed decision in April 2004 not to join hands with other local municipalities across the state in solidarity with the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, better known as UTOPIA, a high-speed broadband telecommunications service that would be networked across the state.

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I know full well that lumping both of these decisions into the same pool isn’t quite fair. It was the Salt Lake City Council’s decision to thumb its nose at UTOPIA. To be fair, the members of the Salt Lake County Council took a far more skeptical view of Real’s stadium before finally, but unfortunately, becoming convinced of its dubious worth. Both UTOPIA and Real operate along completely different business models. But the potential payoff of UTOPIA carried so much more promise in terms of quality of life along the Wasatch Front than does the potential payoff to those who simply cannot conceive of life without the prospect of watching a live soccer game on home turf. To put it simply, far more of us in Salt Lake City stood to gain from UTOPIA’s promise than the 20,000 who will fill Mr. Checketts’ stadium.

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I also know full well that UTOPIA’s taking a lot of flak from the fact that it’s running behind schedule, and that a similar municipal-hosted model in Utah County, iProvo, desperately needs subscribers and has struggled to make payment on its bond. Opponents of government subsidies for a fiber-optic network are already crowing about the fact that Google and Earthlink are teaming up to potentially provide whole cities with free wireless networks. Can you say “monopoly waiting to happen”? It’s not as if our nation’s legal system makes matters easier, either. In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states have the right to stop local municipalities from building telecommunications utility projects. This pleased established utilities to no end, but the Consumers Union and Consumer Federation of America believe firmly that “open access,” independently maintained broadband networks allowing outside competition access to lines is the best path to competition, and eventually lower prices, for consumers.

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None of this means the potential of fiber-optic broadband networks will be obsolete anytime soon. Fiber optics still carries far more information, far faster, than wireless networks. Given the chance, most observers believe it will one day replace the traditional phone line to provide households with all their information needs, including Internet, video and voice service. Other nations, including France and South Korea, have already left the United States in the dust when it comes to fiber-optic broadband capabilities, in part because they understand how local government can work with the private sector for the most efficient approach possible.

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Even with our nation’s patchwork approach to telecommunications, how does Salt Lake City compare in terms of “wired” status with other major cities? Taking into account broadband adoption, access options and wi-fi hotspots in Forbes magazine’s ranking of the United States’ “most wired cities,” Salt Lake City didn’t even place in the top 30, while such seeming rust-belt laggards the likes of Cleveland, Cincinatti, Pittsburgh and even Detroit left us in the dust.

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A strong argument could be made that Salt Lake City’s rejection of UTOPIA made its goals for Utah towns and cities brave enough to subscribe even more difficult, perhaps even impossible, to fulfill. But even with UTOPIA out of the way, you’d think our city would at least do more to increase our number of wi-fi spots.

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But we have our soccer stadium. Thank God, we have our soccer stadium.

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