UTOPIA Pursues Additional Funding

UTOPIA, the open access FTTH network in several cities of Utah, has been seeking some $20 million to continue adding new subscribers to the network. The cities involved seem to be on board, committing to the funding following recent successes.

Mayor Mike Winder, of West Valley City - one of the UTOPIA cities, makes the case for digging deeper to lend money to the network:

UTOPIA's good news is that since June 2008, it's added over 3,500 new customers and reached about 10,000 subscribers, 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.

The plain and simple fact is that these towns have already committed to the project; they are vested in its success. Now under better management, perhaps his whole town will have access to fastest speeds available in the country:

Only 23 percent of my city has UTOPIA fiber, and there are homes and businesses that want access to the speed of light. After weighing the issue for months, I've concluded that we need to bring UTOPIA fiber to the rest of West Valley City, and just as importantly, to grow UTOPIA to profitability. I will be encouraging my council and my colleagues in UTOPIA cities around the state to join me in charging forward.

A press release from UTOPIA announces ambitious plans:

The new plan anticipates adding about 20,000 more customers over the next several years. “We’ve known for a long time that UTOPIA needs a much larger customer base, and a good mix of business and residential customers, to make the books balance,” says Murray Mayor Dan Snarr. “Our cities are already obligated to the network for years to come, so we need to grow to critical mass rapidly, based on a plan to ensure long-term financial health.”

And Orem's mayor reiterated UTOPIA's philosophy (noting that the NY Times have called for open access networks):

Governments build roads, and allow FedEx and UPS to compete on them. Governments build airports, and allow Delta and Southwest to compete at them. It makes sense for us to build a fiber network, and allow any interested service provider to compete on it…

A number of other UTOPIA city mayors made similar points in a different oped:

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.

Maintaining this momentum will be a challenge for UTOPIA, which now has to compete against faster Comcast services and the occasional faster Qwest broadband option (very occasional, in my experience). UTOPIA was a pioneering effort that stumbled - not an unusual occurrence. In fact, it sounds like UTOPIA may be suing RUS to recover the funds promised by RUS but never delivered. There is no reason to doubt it can build on recent successes to grow its way out of the debt.

Comcast, Qwest, and other opponents will take every opportunity to submarine it or trumpet additional missteps. Nonetheless, every additional household passed by UTOPIA gets access to 11 new providers today, and probably more in the future. That is real competition, and on a network far faster than anything Comcast or Qwest can match.

These accomplishments were recently noted with a Cornerstone Award from Broadband Properties.

“This award means a great deal,” says Scott DeGarmo, president and CEO of Broadband Properties, “because, since its inception, UTOPIA has had an iconic status for those who believe in fiber-to-the-premises. More than any other project here or abroad, it represents the aspirations of numerous individuals and organizations. We’re pleased to bestow this award in recognition of your extraordinary performance in taking on the challenges of UTOPIA and producing admirable results.”