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Uintah Highlands, Farr West debate expanded internet offerings

By Tim Vandenack standard-Examiner - | Jan 5, 2021
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UTOPIA Fiber crews lay underground fiber cables in Clearfield on Aug. 5, 2020. Reps from UTOPIA addressed North Ogden leaders on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020, about expanding to that city. Officials in Weber County are mulling expansion of Internet offerings and UTOPIA is one option that has emerged.

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A Connext sign in the yard of Farr West City Councilperson Ken Phippen is pictured Aug. 12, 2020. Connext seeks support and interest in its proposal to expand fiber-optic cable in Farr West to augment internet access in the city.

FARR WEST — A hundred years ago or so, electrification was the big push, the focus of efforts to keep U.S. homes with the times.

Times change, and now, says Ken Phippen, a member of the Farr West City Council, access to high-speed internet is the thing. “People realize that broadband is the infrastructure and utility of the century,” he said.

Accordingly, talk and debate is ratcheting up across Weber County about putting more fiber in the ground, giving the public more internet options to improve speed and connectivity.

In Farr West, officials last year agreed to pursue a franchise agreement with Connext, a private internet service provider, hoping to spur development of a fiber network in the city. More recently, residents from the unincorporated Uintah Highlands area approached Weber County commissioners, seeking support in efforts to augment high-speed internet access there, perhaps through an accord with UTOPIA Fiber, the community-owned fiber-optic network operator.

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and increasing numbers of students started doing classwork via the internet, Uintah Highlands residents realized the networks serving the area weren’t up to the task.

“We were griping together about how poor internet service is,” said Elliot Moses, who lives in the area and has helped spearhead the push. Rising internet use “was increasing the load and it was making it impossible for them to get done what they need to get done.”

For now, where the development goes remains to be seen. UTOPIA reps met with officials in North Ogden and South Ogden late last year, also to discuss the notion of expanding fiber connectivity to bolster high-speed internet access. But based on the communities wrestling with the issue, its import seems to be gaining traction.

Weber County Commissioner Gage Froerer has heard the pitch from Moses on augmenting high-speed internet offerings in the Uintah Highlands, and he said Ogden Valley residents are also focused on the topic. “We obviously support broadband expansion in both these areas,” Froerer said.

Increasing fiber connectivity requires money, though, and that’s the rub.

In Farr West, Connext and other fiber proponents are trying to drum up support from residents, one household at a time. If enough households commit to fiber, putting up $300 each to help install the network, Connext will move forward. For now, the firm offers services via wireless technology, according to Phippen, a proponent of the effort.

“The fiber project model is strictly opt-in and opt-out. If you don’t want fiber internet, you will NOT be forced to pay for it through taxes or any other means. Only those who choose to opt in will pay for wireless and/or fiber internet,” reads an informational Connext blurb on the plans.

Farr West isn’t putting up any money. “Basically, we promised to stay out of their way,” said Phippen. Interest, he went on, seems to be “growing very organically.”

In the Uintah Highlands, officials looked into the notion of tapping into CARES Act funding meant to help counter the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. But while there are provisions in the federal measure allowing for funding to be used for broadband in rural areas, Weber County didn’t meet the requirements, Froerer said. Following approval late last month of the new federal COVID-19 relief bill, county officials are scouring the measure to see if it may contain funding provisions.

Among the incumbent internet providers in Weber County are Xfinity, part of the Comcast Corp., and CenturyLink. In the Uintah Highlands, Moses favors the UTOPIA option.

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. Cities typically back UTOPIA’s bonds, and if Weber County were to go that route, it would have to back the bonds since the Uintah Highlands is an unincorporated area. Creating a special service district would be another possible mechanism, if the county was unwilling or unable.

However, Moses said, the cost of building a UTOPIA fiber-optic network in conjunction with the relatively low household density in the area could boost the cost beyond UTOPIA’s typical model. The longer distances between homes would require more fiber, hence a bigger relative cost. Grant funds, perhaps, could be earmarked to offset that.

Officials in North Ogden and South Ogden indicated support in their respective meetings with UTOPIA for polling of residents in each city to gauge interest in installing a fiber network.

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