This is Episode 3 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Todd Marriott and Pete Ashdown join the show to discuss the benefits of the network UTOPIA and how an open access model actually works. Listen to this episode here.
Christopher: This is Christopher Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance back for our third podcast, discussing community broadband networks. Today, we're talking about the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency or UTOPIA. We start with UTOPIA executive director Todd Marriott and we'll finish with a short interview of Pete Ashdown the founder of X Mission which offers services over UTOPIA. Much has already been written about UTOPIA'S financial problems, so we chose to focus instead on some of the benefits of the network. Now, let's start with executive direct Todd Marriott. Todd Marriott, thank you very much for joining me on Community Broadband Bits.
Todd: Thanks, Chris, really appreciate all that you do here in the nation in regards to this national effort that is so critical.
Christopher: Thanks. Well, you run UTOPIA which has been around for a very long time. I'm just hoping you can briefly explain to our audience what UTOPIA is.
Todd: UTOPIA is 16 municipalities in Utah that got together about 10 years ago, begged for the incumbents, the cable companies, to provide better broadband, they were told no, they offered to pay them to do it, they were told no, so they got together and said then we'll take matters into our own hands, and they put into play some active Ethernets, open-access system that goes all the way from up in Rattlesnake Pass in Idaho down to Las Vegas, and over 2000 miles of fiber in between, so it is really a critical infrastructure project of the state of Utah.
Christopher: Now, when you say open access, can you just tell me a little bit about what that means? If I'm a resident in the area, what does that mean for me?
Todd: That's a great question, because people understand it differently. Open access to us means: because we are quasi governmental, and we are owned by cities, we really do just establish the infrastructure. I think those that aren't familiar with open-access could mostly align it with such things as an airport. We are the airport; we build the runways, the systems, and then we allow anybody else to use those runways that want to use it. We have a lot of different service providers, for example, that provide a number of different offerings across our pipes. Anybody that wants to use it can, and it's open to anybody that wants to do so.
Christopher: If I'm a resident, how many choices do I have right now?
Todd: Today we have 15 providers, and growing by 4 more in about a month. Other types of service providers that provide data backup, provide transport and other delivery mechanisms. I think, by the end of August you'll have about 19 different companies to choose from. Some that are triple place and are data only, some that do voice TLS, dealing all kinds of services.
Christopher: Right now you say things like VLAN, it's a great acronym that people like me, we know what it means, but I presume it's mostly something for small businesses, that they really can't get from the providers that you compete on an infrastructure basis, which are CenturyLink now, formerly Quest, and Comcast, is that right?
Todd: Not just smaller companies, bigger companies, but a lot of times the smaller branches need the ability to establish a virtual network that doesn't rely on the internet. That allows them to peer with their other organizations, and we, because of the way UTOPIA is built, we are able to layer in our infrastructure the ability for them to have virtual networks as if they're 2000 or 100 miles away, or whatever the case is, as if they're right there next to their computers, or systems, or offices.
Christopher: They don't need to employ some sort of tech person, right? They just get a cord from you, basically, they plug it into their computers or their networks, and they're connected over hundreds, thousands, of miles if they need to be?
Todd: That is correct, and it works great.
Christopher: You've just launched a brand new service the Gigabit Per Second, which is very rare throughout the United States. Can you tell me why you decided to launch that very high level service?
Todd: Yeah, and it's interesting, we've providing this gig to the home for some time, really. It's just that we noticed a lot of networks were kind of officially putting it out there, and so rather than doing it on the ones and twos basis, we thought we would standardize it. We did, we've established kind of a gig product now that's out there, and really is unique, and the ability to have a gig to a resident, let alone a business that can get it, is substantial. We do have people that are already using it.
Christopher: Do you have any really fascinating stories about what they're doing with it?
Todd: One of our gig users is using ... He's a movie producer, he worked on a lot of Pixar, Pirates of the Caribbean, those kinds of things, and he could show you how dynamic his needs are from a broadband perspective, where he's transferring files that are so large, such significant, many of them at one time, back and forth between different partners, et cetera, that he needs this type of work. He can work more effectively here in Utah than he can next door in Hollywood.
Christopher: UTOPIA has been offering new ways of consumers to connect to the network with some pay up front options, or leasing connections, in order to cover that very high capital cost that all networks have to wrestle with. I was wondering if you could tell me how some of those efforts are paying off, and describe them for our readers.
Todd: This is very expensive infrastructure, and that's why we ... This is an infrastructure build, if it were easy, the incumbents would be doing it. We had to have models that allowed us to be sustainable and not just have somebody sign up like they would a cable service, use it for fast internet, move, or not treat it as the infrastructure it is. We allow people to really purchase that infrastructure from curb to home, own it like you would a water line to your house, electrical line to your home. Because of the open access nature of it, it's something that you can use really for the life of your home, for your whole life, because you can choose if you don't like a provider ... Today if I don't like Comcast, I have to quit and go to something else, and there's limited options, but with this infrastructure in place I can really ... There's a lot of different services that are available on the net and just get connectivity through this pipe. That's kind of how we see it is just you're going to have connectivity like you would electricity or water, so we've developed models that allow an ownership nature to it. We also have some typical leasing models, like most people would be use to as well, and so we provided and enabled the sustainability of our build.
Christopher: If I'm a home owner, and I'm in an area near where you're offering service, what can I do to get connected? Do I call UTOPIA and say, "What options are available?" How are you reaching out to those people to let them know that they have an option?
Todd: That is a big job we have, is allowing people the awareness that we have to have to let people know that they can get access to it. One of the biggest problems we have is that there are so many people that want to have access to it, and we're just not in front of their homes yet. Those that are further homes can call, we identify that through our customer care center, or online, we're able to suggest that they want more information, or subscribe, and then get connected. When they do they have a number of different options. They can choose to own the line, or they can choose to lease it, sometimes they've already established the line to the home, somebody may have moved, and they're just moving in, and they re-establish it through a reconnect, so there's a number of different ways that they can do that. People are so excited if they can get UTOPIA, generally, that we keep them, and they really, very aggressively, find us. The problem that we have right, Christopher, is the people who can't get it yet, and that's ... We're trying to get to those.
Christopher: That brings up my final question then. Back in, I want to say 2007, there was testimony for a bill that was going to make it ... I think it was going to make your life more miserable, or UTOPIA's life more miserable, in 2007. In testimony, in Utah legislature, a local business from Murray, I believe, testified that when they considered leaving the areas that UTOPIA served, when they were going to move their business they realized that their business model would suffer, and they needed to stay within the UTOPIA footprint. I'm curious if you know of any other stories of people who once they get spoiled by your services, if they're finding it hard to move into an area where they may only have Comcast as a choice?
Todd: There are many, many, stories like that. They really occur on a daily basis, that we get people that are moving into the area that will only buy a home, or a business, if it's connected along our routes, and there are those who cannot move into other areas because they have this type of connectivity. This kind of connectivity is important because, not just in the price, generally if somebody is using the UTOPIA network, their prices are significantly less, generally a 1/3 of what they'd pay anywhere else for ten times more service. It goes to more what they can do in terms of running their businesses, and not having the limits and constraints put on them, not having to answer to just one monolithic type of entity. The advantage to top TLS type services, or to do things that may be unique, or peer in capabilities, and when they start running their businesses with these kind of capabilities, they build around their own products and business models that incorporate that ability.For example, title companies that no longer send runners up and down the Wasatch Front, spending a lot miles, and gas money, and time, and energy, to take big, thick, reams of paper that are able to simply hit a button, and press 1 and they can print it out, and save all that time and effort. If that company, for example, were to move to a place where they only have Comcast or CenturyLink and have to share access with other neighbors and businesses, et cetera, now they have to hire people and make runners. That would be an example, but it is a consistent, and constant, inquiry we receive in the office.
Christopher: I'm a resident and I said, "You know a gigabit is nice, but I'd really like to have 10 gigabits," can UTOPIA provide that?
Todd: Yes, and we have some customers that we provide 10 gigabit to. Absolutely, in fact, we thought about rolling out a 10 gigabit launch to home, as you know that there's probably very few, if any, applications that 10 gigabit would actually work, so it would be more of a PR thing really, but yes. Really the way we've built the network there's an infinite connectivity ability. We were building an infrastructure without limits, a lot people will also ask, "What happens when this infrastructure becomes obsolete by other technology such as wireless," and as you know, wireless is just an extension. We'd like to have more wireless along our routes, and where we are. We're not in the business of fiber optic infrastructure, we're in the business as a government entity, providing critical connectivity infrastructure. It's just that that base layer, right now, the way to do that is via fiber, but anything we use now, or in the future, has to have that expandable capacity. Because, as you can imagine, you advocate I'm sure, if you went and plugged your toaster into the wall and it took 15 or 20 minutes to get your bread toasted because you're sharing with others, or your toaster came up and said, "Sorry can't toast your bread it's buffering today," you cannot rely on that to do business. At UTOPIA that's why we're building infrastructure. Similarly we were having a lot of wild forest fires out here, and right now the first responders are struggling, at times, they can only do Twitter, because when you get to an area the wireless overlay from the emergency systems get overloaded, and people are using their cell phones to get out of the way, to evacuate, et cetera. That infrastructure is getting down to a wireline service that limits it in terms of price by the incumbents in capacity, so that when cell phone companies are looking to expand and put their macro cell sites out there, they have to look at business models. Because of our infrastructure we're creating micro cell capability that will allow more capacity, more redundancy, more capability, that will allow, for example, first responders the ability to handle emergencies like we're experiencing right now with these forest fires. That kind of speaks to that issue as well.
Christopher: Well thank you very much, this has been great.
Todd: Thank you sir.
Christopher: Thank you. That was Todd Marriott, executive director of UTOPIA. Now we turn to Pete Ashdown, who runs a company offering services on the UTOPIA network. He founded XMission in 1993, on to the interview. You have launched a gigabit service option for your subscribers, but before we get to that maybe you can just talk a little bit about what you do as a company on the Utopia network.
Pete: XMission was the first, and is the oldest, independent internet service provider in Utah. We started in 1993, and we are also one of the first ISPs to get on the UTOPIA network before they ... I was out there lobbying with them when they were trying to get this thing started. Have several thousand customers on there right now, I'm not sure the exact count for you, but we service anywhere from 5 mg to 100 mg, and now a gig.
Christopher: Were you a DSL reseller before then?
Pete: We were, and we are, and we did DSL with Quest and now CenturyLink. We started DSL with them in 1997, and that was a very successful partnership, but for whatever reasons CenturyLink decided with their fiber to the node, and ADSL 2 product, they did not want 3rd party participation.
Christopher: People are interested, they can look up your website where you had a good post about that, I want to say a year or two ago.
Pete: You know, I've been very verbal about I thought we brought a lot of money to Quest during the time that we serviced, well we continue to service their DSL, the original DSL product, and also we pride ourselves with our support. I think that's one of the hardest parts of the equation, and doing internet service provision.
Christopher: That's why small ISPs have been very successful, obviously. Now you're offering a product that's far better than anything Quest will offer, now CenturyLink, will offer, for the foreseeable future. What's happening there?
Pete: The rise of gigabit offerings is starting to happen around the world, and UTOPIA decided that this was something they could do on their infrastructure, and as they were rolling it out in Centerville, and eventually to the other UTOPIA service cities, and so they asked us and other internet service providers on the network whether we would be willing to do gigabit. Ever since I've done Internet over modems in the early days, to the faster bandwidths later, I've always felt that it's not so much the speed, but the usage that counts. If there's a opportunity to provide a faster speed to our customers I'm going to do that because it's going to work out for a better experience for them. I don't think the majority of those customers are necessarily going to use any more than they otherwise would.
Christopher: How many customers have you seen pick it up?
Pete: We haven't signed up anybody yet, we've had a number of calls on it. It is $300 a month, and although that's something that I would love to have in my own house, if I had UTOPIA, I don't think the majority of residences out there are really interested in jumping on something like that. They'd have to be probably a very tech savvy, or heavy computer user, to go with that.
Christopher: Yeah, I think it will be the same here. We actually did some surveying in downtown Salt Lake City as to what the interest was in having a gigabit offering. Most people aren't even aware of what their current connection speed is. They just know if it's too slow, and if it's too slow then they inquire about what else is available, but if it's not too slow they're happy with what they've got which could be around 10 mg for most people.Obviously it's not just the speeds that are driving people to use your services, I'm just curious, as a last question, what sets XMission apart, you already mentioned the support, I'm wondering if there's any specific stories, or if there are other things that XMission does that set it apart from a Comcast, a Quest, or maybe even another service provider on the UTOPIA network.
Pete: One of the things that ... I think there's 2 points there. The first is our longevity, we've been around since 1993, which is an eternity in technology. The other companies, a lot of them, Comcast included, got involved in the last 10 years in doing internet service provision. We have real depth of experience that I think the other ones have a hard time matching. The second point is that we're very active in the community, we have a nonprofit program where we give up to $50 a month in services to any 501c3, regardless of their mission, to help them get on the internet, or set up email for their office, or set up a website. We currently have over 250 nonprofits that take advantage of that, so we've been very generous in our support of the community, support not only with that nonprofit program, but in support of music festivals, and art festivals. We have a presence in this community, and we continually give back, not only with our efforts there, but in having local jobs, and people that come to our office and work, rather than outsourcing it to a call center in some other country. We believe that being local is very important.
Christopher: I'm curious if you have any advice for communities who are trying to find someone to encourage them to get into the business, or how a community can come to have an XMission like entity working with them.
Pete: I do, the firs thing is that any sort of effort to finance municipal fiber network with bonds, and wholesale payback, I think should be looked upon with skepticism. I supported that initially when UTOPIA was trying to get this things rolled out, but I think if people want municipal networks, and they should want municipal networks, because they're an economic driver, they should put it on the ballot, and pay for it up front, so there's no question as to the economic viability, and the operation of that network. It's like roads, and airports, and any other infrastructure, digital infrastructure is no different, and should be paid for in the same way. It shouldn't be looked at as a business proposition, it should be looked at as an essential part of a city, or a state. The second thing is I believe in open networks, but you've got to be firm with the people who are participating on the open network. We've had a number of, for lack of a better word, shysters, who have participated on the UTOPIA network, they didn't pay their bills, and they go in arrears of several million dollars, and that's really difficult for the providers like XMission who are paying their bills, and are being upstanding, and are trying to contribute to the network, to operate when you have these other guys who are not. I think they need to be hardcore when somebody doesn't pay their bill, just like with an internet service provider, they should be shut down immediately.
Christopher: I really appreciate your time. Yes thank you.
Pete: Thanks for the opportunity Chris.
Christopher: That was Pete Ashdown, founder of XMission. To learn more about XMission their website is XMission.com, that's an X followed by the word Mission.com, and their blog is at TransMission.XMission.com. For more information about UTOPIA you can surf over to UTOPIAnet.org. Thanks to my colleague Lisa Gonzalez for putting the show together, and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is called Storms Over.