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City Broadband in Provo UT and Beyond.

Foreword: This is a copy of a speech given by Mayor Lewis Billings back in 2004 announcing Provo’s new municipal fiber network. I’m posting it here as an interesting historical record.


Speech before the

American Public Power Association

Community Broadband Conference

San Francisco, CA

Monday, October 11, 2004

By Mayor Lewis K. Billings

Benefits of a Community Broadband Network

In this rapidly changing world we live in, I’ve found you can’t believe everything people say. Consider, for example, the accuracy of the following statements, which no doubt sounded pretty good when they were uttered:

“This telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.  The device is inherently of no value to us.”  (Western Union Internal Memo, 1876)

“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value.  Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” (Response of Associates of David Sarnoff, when invited to invest in radio)

“I think there is a market for about five computers.”  (Thomas Watson, Sr. Founder of IBM, 1943)

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” (Ken Olsen, President and Founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977)

“Fax machines; who needs one?  This is a technology that will never catch on.  Let’s buy one for the entire city and put it in the Recorder’s Office and let that suffice.  When fax machines go out of style, we will be glad we didn’t waste our money on them.” (Former Mayor of Provo City)

“Fiber optic’s capabilities are way more than what most consumers need in their homes. Why provide a Rolls Royce when a Chevrolet will do?” (Utah President of Qwest, 2003)

The last quote is particularly appropriate for my assigned topic today. It was spoken during a legislative debate over iProvo, our city’s project to provide a community broadband network connecting potentially every home and business in Provo. In any visionary undertaking, in any effort to step out of the crowd and try something new, there will always be naysayers and critics. This is particularly true of those of us in the public sector who embrace advanced technologies and who want to make these capabilities available to our citizens.

One of our daily newspapers in Utah editorialized against iProvo, saying high-tech projects like ours “should be left to the dreamers.” I admit it. We’re dreamers – big dreamers. But I believe that big dreamers built this country. Big dreamers built our communities. Big dreamers sent men to the moon. With iProvo, we’re dreamers, but we’ re also doers – very practical doers. We’re building the infrastructure of the future and, in the process, facilitating commerce and enabling entirely new ways of doing business.

Please allow me to quickly share the Provo Story.  Our population is approximately 113,000. We are located high in the Rocky Mountains, bordered by Utah Lake on one side and mountains rising as high as 14,000 feet on the other. Robert Redford’s Sundance ski resort is located in Provo Canyon 20 minutes away. Provo is the county seat and home of Brigham Young University, one of the largest private universities in the country with some 30,000 students.  Provo is the birthplace and/or home of many innovative businesses; such as, WordPerfect, Novell, NuSkin, Morinda, Donny Osmond, Steven R. Covey, and numerous others.

Provo is the largest public power city in the state. Provo City Power has existed since 1940. Its beginning was very controversial, just like our broadband project is today, but it has been very popular with our citizens for nearly 65 years. It has been steady and responsive, providing reliable customer service and stable rates.

When I ran for mayor, one of my platform planks was that I would seek to use technology to benefit the lives of our residents.  After the election, I set out to do just that.  It became clear that we needed a fiber optic network to control traffic lights and traffic cameras, to connect our city facilities, to enhance our public safety capabilities, to accomplish electrical SCADA control, and to provide other municipal services.

At the time, five private sector companies had franchise agreements in place to provide fiber connectivity, but none could or would provide what we needed. It seemed that the franchisees were mostly interested in simply creaming off the biggest and best customers for fiber connectivity.

Let me assure you that I am a champion of the private sector. I came out of the private sector.  My background is business. I feel strongly that government should not do what the private sector can and will do.  But we quickly learned that the private sector was not going to step up in our city, so we turned our attention toward meeting our own needs. As we built a backbone and began to develop and deploy internal applications, others, including businesses and residents, began to express similar needs for connectivity to a really big pipe.

At that point, we began to seriously investigate and explore the feasibility of a fiber-to-the-premises community broadband network. We went through a long and deliberative process; including, thorough study by a special task force of community leaders, numerous public hearings, city council debates and scrutiny, and a great deal of staff work.

When it became apparent we were getting serious about this, the two very large incumbent telecommunications providers went ballistic. One hired a PR firm and a telemarketing company to make calls to citizens. They also placed full-page ads and ultimately hired people to picket City Hall. It was a bruising fight.  My favorite picket sign had a piece of telephone wire taped to it and read that I and one of my key staff members were, “a Twisted Pair.”

The efforts of the large incumbents eventually backfired. For example, at one meeting they filled City Hall with people who had received the telemarketing phone calls and had become concerned as a result. But as these citizens listened to what was really being proposed, they became angry that our proposal had been so grossly misrepresented. “What you are doing is completely different than what they said you were doing,” said many in at tendance.

When they couldn’t stop us at the local level two years ago, our large corporate friends turned their focus to the State Legislature. They proved to be very powerful, thanks, in part, to the many contributions they had made to state legislative races over the years.

At first, we were shut out of closed meetings where proposed legislation affecting us was discussed.  Eventually, the sponsor of the legislation was convinced he should meet with us and, ultimately, made numerous, significant compromises. As initially proposed, the legislation would have prevented us from proceeding with the project. As finally passed, it allowed us to proceed, but required that we adopt a wholesale, open network model, rather than offer retail services ourselves.

This would not be the only challenge to our project. Another legislative effort was launched in the State Senate last year.  This time the Senate President personally promoted the highly damaging legislation. At the Capitol, it was common to hear our opponents say things such as, “The Mayor doesn’t need more fiber, he has plenty already in his city.” Or, “We are expanding DSL in Provo. The Mayor just needs to be a little more patient.” Legislators became confused, and it truly seemed as though our opponents had adopted the philosophy: “If you can’t convince, simply confuse.” With the invaluable assistance of many others, we were able to finally prevail and defeat this legislation. About two months ago, we became fully funded and launched the citywide build-out of our fiber-to-the-premises project.

Wanting to be sure the technology was proven, we built a 300-home test area two years ago.  While we had some problems with our telephone switch provider, the technology worked, and the services offered were popular.

Our network is a full-blown fiber-to-the-premises network. It is Ethernet based, using (TCP/IP) Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol. It is an active network (electronics controlling the signal from start to finish) rather than passive, where optical splitters are used to divide the signal. In our opinion, this provides better control and bandwidth. Our backbone is a gigabit backbone (1,000 megabit).

I believe building our community broadband network is one of the most important things I will accomplish during my tenure as mayor.  I’m convinced of this because ultra-broadband connectivity will encourage and enable exciting new and innovative technology applications that will bolster our economy and change the way we work, learn, and play.

As mentioned previously, the president of one of Utah’s largest telecommunications companies recently told the media, “Why provide a Rolls Royce, when a Chevrolet will do?”  A more apt analogy would have been, “Why provide a gazelle, when a snail will do?”

When it comes to telecommunications services, our businesses and residents want a gazelle.  They are tired of the World Wide Wait.  They want fully interactive, full-motion video. They want advanced telemedicine services.  They want fully interactive distance learning. They want state-of-the-art video-conferencing. They want to instantaneously transfer large graphic files and photos.  They want web-based home security, multi-media email, and HDTV. They want to see and chat with an elderly parent or grandparent via a video phone. They want Voice-over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephony that really works. They want to watch their children’s school productions and sports activities on a community network. Our city wants remote meter reading. We want traffic light synchronization. We want our dispatchers to use street cameras for more effective accident oversight and response.  We want our Police and Fire stations to have state-of-the-art telecommunication functionality.  Yes, it could be said that we want the gazelle, even the Rolls Royce — especially since we project it can be offered at a Chevy price.

All the applications I just mentioned are available here and now. We understand them and can readily deploy them with a community broadband network. But I believe the real promise of what we are doing lies in the applications that we DON’T understand today, things I can’t even comprehend that will be enabled by the immense capacity of our network. The real promise of this technology is in the applications still in the minds of young, smart, innovative entrepreneurs who will design ways to employ it that I can ’t begin to fathom. I absolutely believe the network will spawn innovation and creativity in many kinds of businesses, educators, hospitals, doctors, and even, believe it or not, government.

Let me provide a quick demonstration of the bandwidth I am referring to which will instigate this innovation. Our detractors are fond of saying that DSL or cable modem capabilities are all we need. What is this big pipe we’re talking about? How does one big pipe differ from another?

(Rope band-width demonstration)

This kind of bandwidth changes everything. There’s an old saying that we always overestimate the impact of technology in the short run, but underestimate it in the long run. That’s very true. The spectacular build-up and then bursting of the dot-com balloon a few years ago did nothing to invalidate the underlying technologies that have continued to be developed unabated. Today, many Internet businesses are making profits and doing extremely well, while businesses or government entities without a robust Internet strategy are in serious trouble. Ultra-broadband capabilities in every home and business will accelerate the transformation of whole industries. Every web site will become a potential full-motion, interactive video broadcast channel and every computer a potential interactive receiver of millions of these broadcast web sites. What this will enable in business, education, medicine, and the public sector is mind-boggling.

With ultra-broadband, everything becomes instantaneous. The vision of the network becoming the computer is realized. The need for desktop software updates is eliminated. The hope for a very inexpensive network computer appliance becomes a reality. Everything is hosted out on the network. We subscribe to storage, applications, and software on the network with which we interact as instantly as if it were on our desktop hard drive. Security, privacy, and redundancy are vastly improved over what is possible individually.

Interactive distance learning finally becomes a low-cost reality. The biggest market in the world is China. How are we going to teach our high school students Chinese instead of French? In Utah we have a few teachers who can teach Chinese. With our network, they can teach students all over the state. With our network, all lessons and multi-media material can be housed on a central server, instantly available to any classroom in the state. No more sending videos or DVDs out to schools. Telemedicine comes out of the dark ages. High-quality medical services become available in rural areas.  Applications for business are limited only by the imagination of entrepreneurs. Full-motion video to and from any desktop changes everything. Political campaigns become dramatically different. A candidate could hold five remote town-hall meetings in one day instead of traveling from town to town.  

Local governments have always been facilitators and partners with private businesses and free enterprise.  We have always had the role of providing infrastructure that would be too difficult or too expensive for a private firm to provide alone. Municipalities enable robust competition in the private sector by providing basic services like police and fire protection, by installing and maintaining essential infrastructure like roads, bridges, water systems and airports.  Today, a new basic infrastructure is crucial to our success.  FCC Chairman Michael Copps put it this way, “Broadband networks will be as critical to this new century as roads, canals, and railroads were to the 19th Century and as the Interstate Highway System and basic telephone networks were to the 20th Century.”

Businesses simply won’t locate in communities where these services are not available and fully functioning. Job creation and economic growth are absolutely dependent on these basic services and infrastructure capacity.

Consider an example I will refer to as “A Tale of Two Cities.” Cedar Falls and Waterloo are adjacent cities in Iowa, literally across the street from one another. They have similar tax structures, educational levels, and economic bases. Yet, in the last half-dozen years, Cedar Falls has seen significant growth in business relocations, construction, and tax base, while Waterloo’s economic growth has been stagnant. What made the difference?  Most observers attribute it to a giant step Cedar Falls took in 1996 when it made fiber optic connections available to every home and business in the city.  Since then, annual new construction in Cedar Falls has tripled from $32 million in 1996 to $101 million in 2002. Waterloo has remained flat, hitting an eight-year low in 2002 at $53 million.  Cedar Falls’ business club now hosts 125 businesses, while Waterloo’s has only 10.  Waterloo’s mayor told the local newspaper, “Fiber optics is the key to Waterloo’s future growth. In order for Waterloo and its businesses to move into the 21st Century, we need fiber optic capability. . . I believe it has hurt us economically not to be able to provide fiber optics to businesses locating in our city.”

In Provo, we believe it is conservative to build the economic base of the community instead of raising taxes.  Telecom companies have said it is too expensive to run fiber to every home and business. Their return-on-investment would not be quick enough.  And we understand that. No single company could justify such an investment.  But cities are suited to install this infrastructure. The investment can be repaid with favorable interest rates over 10 to 20 years, a far longer repayment period than a private company could justify

As stated, I personally believe that government should not do what the private sector can and will do.  Although the incumbent providers will say they have and will step up to the plate, it is just not financially realistic or feasible for them to do so.

Please allow me to close with a few e-mail comments from Provo residents.

Michael Stephenson:  “I’m lucky. I’ve participated in the iProvo test. I have only good to say about this initiative. I own a small software consulting firm. I write software for engineers. I contract with one of the country’s premier national laboratories and collaborate with co-workers across the country. All of this wouldn’t be possible without high-speed Internet access. I think it’s an appropriate governmental function to provide the infrastructure that promotes economic growth. In years to come, it will prove to be a decision that generates economic growth for Provo.” 

Heather and Michael Graham: “We believe iProvo will be an extremely important asset to our community. Our time is valuable! Working with slow Internet and limited resources costs us both time and money in our small business and as a family. Please support iProvo and help give us, as consumers, a better choice.”

Stin Hansen: “My business depends on high-speed Internet access, and, as a mother of four working from home, the ability to have a home office is very important to me. The prospect of having more services, improved performance, and hopefully more competitive prices is very appealing to me.”

Derek Shumway: “My wife and I have been iProvo users since its inception. What really sets iProvo apart is the Internet service. I fully expected, as we moved into the 21st Century, someone would open the information floodgates and let me get out of my go-cart and traverse the Internet in a race car. iProvo did. iProvo is hands-down the best ISP available. I have never had anyone use my computer and not say, ‘Wow! And you pay how much for this?’”

Gordon and Cathy Thomas: “We can’t think of a moment in recent history in Provo when such a great idea as iProvo came along and won the support of city government. Thank you for your wise and caring leadership. Don ’t be scared off by the well-heeled and selfish bullies who are running expensive TV ads opposing this superb idea.”

 I could go on and on.

It is our goal, short and simple, to position our city for the future. I believe we have three choices. We can follow and die. We can stay even and survive. Or, we can lead and prosper. We’ve decided we want our city to prosper.

Thank you, and good luck with your community broadband projects.

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