Anyone who tells you that UTOPIA is a "success" or that it is a "failure" is probably minimizing important problems or victories for the network. The Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency, like so many other things in life, is a mixed bag.
For those new to UTOPIA, it is a large multi-community full fiber network that operates by only selling wholesale access to service providers. Due to a law designed to protect incumbent service providers under the guise of protecting taxpayers, UTOPIA cannot offer any services itself and is strictly open access.
For a variety of reasons - that have not and likely will not be repeated by other communities - the network has not yet met expectations. The costs have been greater than expected and the network does not yet cover its entire intended territory (some 16 communities and 140,000 people).
However, where it does operate, it is blazing fast. The service providers offer the fastest speeds at the lowest prices (see a service comparison). It has offered a tremendous competitive advantage to the businesses and communities in which it operates.
Last year, Lawrence Kingsley wrote "The Rebirth of UTOPIA" that explored where the network went wrong and how it has also succeeded. Perhaps most notably, he notes that the churn rate (people switching to other networks) is ridiculously low at .5% - a common trait to community owned networks.
Last month, Geoff Daily reported on how UTOPIA is "Transforming Failure Into Success." They have greatly improved their marketing practices - which has historically been a large barrier to success. This is an important lesson for all - even though there are very few competitors in the broadband market, they do fight fiercely for subscribers. Broadband is competitive like boxing, not like a marathon.
But the news coming out of Utah is not all cheery. Jesse, the resident UTOPIA expert, has recently explained some of the current financial problems and their origin.
Perhaps the most important lesson to take away from UTOPIA is that plans always go awry. I have yet to find a community that did not have unexpected problems along the way to building their networks. Communities that take responsibility for their digital future must be prepared to solve problems as they arise - but what else is new?
As muninetworks.org grows, you will find a lot of material and details about different topics by exploring the tags. Stories displayed on the front page are the tip of the iceberg. For instance, the UTOPIA tag lists more resources we have collected.
Blue River, Colorado is the latest Colorado municipality to explore building its own broadband network with an eye on affordable access. The town is part of a trend that’s only accelerated since the state eliminated industry-backed state level protections restricting community-owned broadband networks. Town leaders recently hired the consulting firm, NEO Connect, to explore the possibility of building a town-wide fiber network.
Pikeville, Kentucky officials, after almost a decade of fighting with Internet Service Provider (ISP) Optimum about service so consistently poor that the city finally sued the provider, are working on an alternative: a partnership that will see the local government build new citywide fiber infrastructure and lease it to an operating partner. The city formalized a public-private partnership with Inter Mountain Cable, a private local company, which will build the network and get exclusive rights to operate it for 15 years, with the city retaining ownership.
Last week, Pulse Fiber officials announced that construction of its community-owned broadband network is now complete with every household and business in this city of 77,000 now having access to affordable gig-speed service. The $110 million construction project, which began in earnest only four years ago, is the largest capital project in the city’s history, reaching the finish line on time and on budget, city officials said.
California has an ambitious $6 billion proposal to shore up affordable broadband access throughout the state, which includes a $3.25 billion plan to build an open-access statewide broadband middle-mile network backers say could transform competition in the Golden State. But while the proposal has incredible potential, digital equity advocates remain concerned that the historic opportunity could be squandered.
In 2021 West Springfield, Massachusetts announced it would be partnering with Westfield Gas and Electric, a publicly owned utility, to deliver its residents symmetrical gigabit fiber service. But efforts to launch the project have been on hold thanks to ongoing delays by Verizon and Eversource to prepare local utility poles for fiber attachment.
With the $14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) on track to run out of funds by spring/early summer 2024, finally there is a request from the White House to extend funding for the program that over 21 million households now rely on to help pay for high-speed Internet service. While digital equity advocates rightly celebrate the White House request for additional funding as a national effort is underway to boost ACP enrollment, leading digital inclusion organizations – such as the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) – have also been advocating for a more permanent funding solution, possibly through reform of the Universal Services Fund.