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South Ogden mulls partnering with UTOPIA to bolster internet offerings in city

By Tim Vandenack standard-Examiner - | Nov 24, 2020
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UTOPIA Fiber crew members lay fiber in a West Point neighborhood in this 2020 photo.

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This undated photo shows Kimberly McKinley, UTOPIA Fiber’s chief marketing officer.

SOUTH OGDEN — The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the import of access to high-speed internet — to work and study from home, for entertainment and more.

Spurred in part by that realization, South Ogden officials are mulling the possibility of partnering with UTOPIA Fiber to bring a new fiber network to the city to bolster broadband offerings. Officials from Ogden are also interested and following South Ogden as it starts probing the possibilities.

“We’re looking at what alternatives are available. What are the costs?” said Mark Johnson, chief administrative officer for Ogden. “It is something we’re looking at along with South Ogden.”

To that end, the South Ogden City Council heard a presentation last week from Roger Timmerman, the UTOPIA executive director, on the possibility of building a new $12.75 million fiber network in the city. An information technology rep from the city of Ogden listened in.

UTOPIA is a community-owned fiber-optic network serving numerous communities in Utah, including Layton. It helps install and manage municipal fiber systems for residential and business use, working with individual cities. Most recently, it reached accords to install networks in Clearfield and West Point in Davis County, though it doesn’t currently serve any Weber County cities.

To be sure, no formal action has been taken by South Ogden officials. But at last Tuesday’s South Ogden City Council meeting, officials agreed to let UTOPIA poll residents on the possibility, probably sometime early next year. That will help the city and UTOPIA reps get a gauge of potential interest. Then city officials will decide what next steps, if any, to take, said Matt Dixon, the South Ogden city manager.

As is, private internet service providers already serve South Ogden and Ogden. UTOPIA, company officials say, creates an alternative that will typically reach all corners of a community, something established providers don’t always offer. Moreover, it can typically offer higher internet speeds than traditional firms. “Our network is very robust,” and prices are usually comparable to competitors, said Kimberly McKinley, UTOPIA’s chief marketing officer.

Dixon said proximity of South Ogden to existing sections of UTOPIA’s fiber network bode well for expansion into the city. UTOPIA already serves some businesses in the city around Harrison Boulevard and U.S. 89. “The reason it might work for South Ogden is the fact that UTOPIA already has fiber in our major corridors,” Dixon said.

Per the UTOPIA model, the entity will bond for the funds necessary for a fiber system and oversee its installation. Then, customers will contract with private providers that tap into the network for internet service. A portion of the fees subscribers pay are used to cover bond costs, freeing the city of financial liability. Cities getting systems will typically back the bonds if there aren’t enough subscribers, but Bob Knight, a UTOPIA spokesman, said subscriber revenue has been sufficient to cover bond costs on all systems built since 2009.

The South Ogden network has an estimated price tag of $12.75 million, according to last week’s presentation. About 35% of South Ogden households, 2,210 of 6,276, would have to subscribe to service via the UTOPIA system, if built, to generate the funds necessary to cover anticipated bond costs. In Layton, around 45% of households get internet service via UTOPIA and the rate “continues to increase,” according to the UTOPIA PowerPoint presentation to South Ogden officials.

’UNPRECEDENTED DEMAND'South Ogden and Ogden officials aren’t alone in their interest in UTOPIA. Knight said UTOPIA has experienced a huge surge in demand since the start of the pandemic, with more and more people working and studying from home. “To meet the unprecedented demand, UTOPIA Fiber crews are building the network faster than ever before. Last month, crews laid an unprecedented 45 miles of fiber,” Knight said.

What’s more, other cities are also interested in UTOPIA, though officials wouldn’t divulge any names. “We are talking to quite a few cities throughout the state at this point,” McKinley said.

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