Rebecca Palmer
July 13, 2010

About 250 people attended a rally Tuesday evening organized to protest the municipal fiber-optic network UTOPIA.

Dozens of families heard from a handful of speakers that UTOPIA, the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, is seeking a bailout and that its 11 member cities should sell the network while they can.

UTOPIA will have to close its doors if it doesn’t get additional cash, the speakers said. A new group of UTOPIA cities is organizing the Utah Infrastructure Agency to get between $60 million and $65 million in cash in the next five years.

Other speakers, such as 2nd Congressional District candidate Morgan Philpot, a Republican, spoke out against government debt and big spending, drawing cheers from the crowd.

The meeting was organized by the Utah Taxpayers Association, a longtime opponent of the project. The association has confirmed that UTOPIA competitors such as Qwest and Comcast are among its members but has declined to disclose their contribution levels to the nonprofit taxpayers association.

A few dozen association supporters attended the meeting, including several state senators, but many crowd members gathered under the pavilion in Orem City Park simply for education, they said.

“We came here to figure it out,” said Troy Whiting, who lives in Orem but is not a UTOPIA subscriber. “I like the idea (of a municipal fiber-optic network). I think it has made competitors more competitive.”

Others showed up even though they do not live in any of the 11 municipalities that organized UTOPIA in 2002.

“They’ll never turn a profit,” said Sam Betteridge of Eagle Mountain. “It’s only a big hole in the ground. Technology moves so quickly that fiber will be outdated before it’s deployed.”

Throughout the three-hour rally, UTOPIA Chief Executive Officer Todd Marriott wandered the crowd and talked to supporters and opponents alike.

A former Brigham Young University football player, the CEO said UTOPIA is running a deficit of about $250,000 per month but is closing the gap and will be profitable within five years.

Marriott said the term “bailout” is inaccurate.

UTOPIA will only borrow additional funds if it has subscribers in place to repay the debt, he said.

None of the five cities that have agreed to be part of the Utah Infrastructure Agency have borrowed money, and other UTOPIA cities such as Tremonton have decided against joining the new group. Others, such as Orem, have yet to vote on the issue.