Rep. Urquhart and Jesse Harris have recently been discussing questions regarding the financial position of UTOPIA on their respective blogs, www.steveu.com and www.freeutopia.org. Jesse Harris has focused on what he perceives as the dearth of public information on UTOPIA’s financial position. Fortunately, UTOPIA has published much of the data Rep. Urquhart is asking for. Given the dismal story the data tells, however, it’s not surprising UTOPIA doesn’t like to talk about it.
UTOPIA’s original feasibility study projected that they would receive an average revenue per user (ARPU) of $58 (page 16). Page 29 of the same feasibility study anticipates that a take rate of less than 20% would jeopardize the $10.1 million annual sales tax pledges from member cities. Over the 20 years of the UTOPIA bonds, that means UTOPIA pledging members would have to pay $202 million.
During their June 2007 board meeting, UTOPIA’s representatives shared the current state of their finances. Page 2 of their 2007 financials show them with 6,493 customers, and $2.25 million in revenue. (Curiously, UTOPIA still hasn’t published that data online, though they did email these financials when Utah Taxpayers Association asked for it.) That means for 2007 their ARPU was just $29, or half of what they were projecting.
In a recent presentation to the Cottonwood Heights City Council, UTOPIA described their current take rate, both on a system-wide basis, and city by city. On slide 16, UTOPIA indicates that their current system-wide take rate is 16.4%. With their take rate below the break even threshold, and their ARPU just half of what their feasibility study projected, UTOPIA’s financial position seems precarious at best.
Their 2007 financial summary raises other serious questions. While they anticipated receiving $5.25 million in fees from subscribing members, their amended budget shows them only receiving 1/3 that amount, or $1.75 million. Similarly, they projected that they would spend $9.0 million in network operations, but their amended budget shows them spending just half that amount, $4.3 million.
The combination of much lower-than-projected subscriber revenue and much lower-than-projected expenses for network operations suggests that UTOPIA didn’t attract anywhere near the number of retail customers as they anticipated. In all of these cases, UTOPIA made much rosier projections than actual experience justifies. In testimony before the Legislature’s Government Competition and Privatization Subcommittee, UTOPIA general counsel David Shaw explained the dissonance between their projections and reality as the product of “externalities.” Perhaps a better word would be “competition.” Given this dissonance, the Legislature can and should ask whether UTOPIA is a going concern. If they aren’t, it’s hard to see why they should be allowed to expand.