The responsible way forward for UTOPIA

Apr 23 2010 - 4:17pm

Editor's note: The following column is a response to the April 21 Standard-Examiner "Our View" editorial "UTOPIA's endless pitch."

It is no secret that eight years ago Top of Utah cities Centerville, Layton, Perry, Tremonton, and Brigham City made a significant commitment to be part of a consortium of municipalities working to bring an open fiber network to the homes and businesses of their cities.

The Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA) had its share of challenges in early years -- ranging from frivolous lawsuits against them to being strung along in bad faith by an arm of the federal government.

Once UTOPIA found its footing, it posted a series of successes under the new management brought on in the summer of 2008. More than 3,500 new customers have been added to a subscriber base now 10,000 strong, the number of service providers on the network has grown from three to 12, and national voices -- from Google to the New York Times -- are trumpeting the virtues of an open-fiber network.

Open-fiber networks provide the fiber highway and allow the free market to compete on it. Countries with the fastest and cheapest Internet speeds are those that encourage open networks so that the private sector can compete, as opposed to a phone and cable company duopoly that aces out other competition. This is the reason why South Koreans have Internet speeds four times faster than Utahns -- and for a lot less money.

Companies that use municipal fiber, like the 12 service providers of UTOPIA, tend to be local high-tech entrepreneurs that could never afford to each run data lines to every home in Utah, and would we really want our city streets torn up to accommodate these dozens of telecom companies if each had to lay its own lines?

The answer is clearly no -- and it's unnecessary. One of the primary roles of local government is to provide necessary infrastructure to enable its economies to function and thrive. We build sewer, water, and storm drain lines, parks; even airports so that private companies like Delta and Southwest can compete.

We build roads so that private companies like UPS and FedEx can compete, and we are now building a fiber network so that private companies like Veracity, Prime time, Voonami, XMission, and Brigham.net can compete.

In today's evolving economy, if we are to remain competitively positioned, as a nation, state, or city, we must do a better job of providing advanced ways of communicating, strengthening our economic health. Waiting for the private sector to build the robust fiber network needed for the future would be like waiting for a turnpike company to build the nation's highway system; it isn't going to happen. Yet, we feel that this is necessary public infrastructure that we are stepping up to build.

The question is how do we get UTOPIA on its own feet so it doesn't have to rely so much on public investment? We facilitate continued growth based on recent years' successes so that our network reaches enough subscribers to be at a break-even point.

UTOPIA is similar to a metaphor of dairy farming; over the last few years the dairy farmer has put in place the barns, the milking equipment, and the feed for its operation.

The problem is it is only milking 10,000 cows when it really needs to be milking 15,000 to achieve the economies of scale needed to pay for the farm. Should the farmer throw his hands up and walk away from it all, or should he simply get more cows so that he can continue a viable business?

Since the farmer is on the hook to pay the mortgage on the farm for 30 more years anyway, the answer is easy: get more cows.

This is why we support continuing to fund UTOPIA's successful growth. It is the prudent and responsible action to take as stewards of the public money, and it is the correct strategic choice to bring fiber to the homes and businesses of our communities.

Steve Curtis is the mayor of Layton; Ron Russell is the mayor of Centerville; Dennis Fife is the mayor of Brigham City; Roger Fridal is the mayor of Tremonton; and Jerry Nelson is the mayor of Perry.

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