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Difficult telecom lessons

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The Provo City Council's recent decision to convene a committee of business and political leaders and study what to do with iProvo is the most refreshing news on the local fiber-optic front in years.

Coming in a close second was the Payson City Council's decision last week to reject a UTOPIA refinance plan that would have put millions of dollars in city taxes at risk for 33 years for that failing multicity fiber-optic network. Unfortunately, four other cities decided to approve the plan. Another six of the original 11 cities to sign on and pledge city resources toward UTOPIA have yet to decide.

Provo's review committee consists of people with little telecommunications experience. That's a good thing. The Wasatch Front has heard enough from telecom experts about how fast and wonderful fiber-optic technology is. Instead, the committee includes people who understand business and finance — something that has been lacking from the beginning.

Provo already has lost about $7.5 million since 2003 on iProvo, and it stands to lose another $2 million this year. That doesn't include the $39.5 million the city has borrowed to get the project under way.

Mayor Lewis Billings has presented a list of possible solutions. These include charging city departments for using iProvo (which would be another way to cleverly charge taxpayers without letting them know) and privatizing the network. We like the latter option, especially if it is a clever way of saying, "Sell to the highest bidder."

That ought to be UTOPIA's plan, as well. The truth, however, is that neither network would fetch much money.

While Utah cities are agonizing over whether to continue trying to socialize Internet access, Qwest announced last week it is launching a 10-state fiber-optic project that will bring Internet speeds as fast as anything currently available on iProvo or UTOPIA to much of Utah. The company said the project would cost $300 million and be available later this year for prices beginning at $46.99 per month.

We're not touting Qwest as the best provider. Other private companies offer connections, as well. But it is significant to compare this investment, which uses no taxpayer money, to the clumsy and mismanaged ones that do. UTOPIA's new marketing plan is to charge residents up-front connection fees of about $2,000. Good luck with that.

Provo's review committee is a good step toward ending a bad venture before it costs more. It's up to six other cities to end UTOPIA's pipe dream. Given the rich history of technology, Americans shouldn't have to relearn difficult lessons about the power of the private market.