UTOPIA, Strata Networks Turns Utah into Hotbed of Looming Competition

Whether it is UTOPIA Fiber or the growing number of cities establishing open access fiber network agreements with Strata Networks, Utah continues to be on the cutting edge of developing creative, highly-localized alternatives to entrenched regional monopolies, the first step in genuinely bridging the nation’s stubborn digital divide. Now, officials in American Fork, Utah have struck a new partnership with Strata Networks to build 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps) capable fiber network to improve high-speed Internet access for the city’s 34,000 residents.

Forking Up Competition

According to the project FAQ, the network will be financed via a $25 million bond taken out in 2020 and fully financed through subscriber revenues. 

The network will be open access, allowing numerous local ISPs to come in and compete in layers. For more than a decade, independent studies have found that such models boost competition, resulting in higher quality service and lower prices. Despite this, federal policymakers have routinely turned a blind eye to the concept in federal policymaking. 

In contrast, a growing parade of communities like American Fork are actually listening to the data and embracing the open access concept on a scale previously unseen in the U.S. Increasingly, a growing number of such communities are in Utah.

“Some residents in our community have had little to no options when it comes to Internet service providers. With this open-access model, residents can choose which service works best for them in a truly competitive market,” American Fork Mayor Brad Frost said in the project announcement. “With this approach, and STRATA Networks as our partner, we can finally give all our residents equal access to fast reliable fiber Internet.” 

Frost told the Daily Herald locals should see speeds of 250 megabit per second (Mbps) for between $60 and $70 per month, and speeds of 10 Gbps for somewhere around $200 per month.

American Fork and Strata say they’re currently in the design phase of the planned network, but that locals can express interest at the city’s website to help determine which parts of the city are prioritized during construction. 

American Fork is the second major deployment partnership announced by Strata in as many months. 

Last October, officials in Lehi City, Utah say they broke ground on their own open access fiber network in partnership with Strata they hope will drive competition—and ultimately lower prices—to all city residents.

The network will be built on the back of Lehi’s Utilities Department, part of a growing trend of U.S. utilities using an historic infusion of federal funding to expand affordable broadband connectivity.

Strata has also partnered with Providence City, Utah on a similar fiber build that’s also open access, providing locals with eight different ISPs to choose from.

Providence officials say the network is under construction and should reach all city residents by the end of 2024. 

Options Galore

Elsewhere in Utah, cities continue to craft new partnerships with UTOPIA, the nation’s largest open access network. 

Last July, West Haven, Utah’s city council voted unanimously to strike an accord with the Utah Infrastructure Agency (UIA) to build its own $17.6 million fiber network. On November 14, UTOPIA announced it had been tasked with helping the city build the network, marking UTOPIA’s first entrance into Weber County, Utah. 

Much like Strata’s projects, UTOPIA’s open access model is “network neutral,” opening the door to numerous local ISPs to compete on the network once it’s complete. Construction of the new network is expected to begin by the end of 2022 or early 2023, and take less than two years to fully complete. 

"We’re enormously proud to welcome West Haven to the UTOPIA Fiber network,” Kim McKinley, UTOPIA’s Chief Marketing Officer, told ILSR. “We now offer business services in 50 cities and fiber-to-the-home services in 21, further solidifying UTOPIA Fiber as the nation’s largest and most successful Open Access network.”

UTOPIA and city officials estimate that 3,612 subscribers would be needed to cover bonding costs for the $17.6 million network, a target they say they should be able to reach quickly. UTOPIA provides residential broadband speeds as high as 10 Gbps, and enterprise-grade service speeds as fast as 50 Gbps. 

Cities that have steered toward Strata Networks and away from UTOPIA say their decisions were based on a greater desire for broader control over the network and its finances.

“Owning the infrastructure means that the Lehi City Council controls the future of the network,” Lehi Fiber Administrative Services Manager Shaye Ruitenbeek recently told ILSR. “If Lehi had partnered with UTOPIA, Lehi would not have had a seat on the board nor control over the future of the network.”

UTOPIA, in contrast, insists that its long history of navigating a complicated market heavily dominated by deep-pocket monopolies hellbent on preventing competition (Lumen/Centurylink, formerly Qwest, worked tirelessly to sue the network into oblivion in its early days) makes it well suited as a partner for cities looking for help in improving their broadband fortunes. 

“Cities choose UTOPIA Fiber due to its proven operational prowess, financial stability, legendary customer care, and our unparalleled ability to bring 17 Internet service providers on day one to communities,” McKinley told ILSR.

Whether cities choose to partner with UTOPIA Fiber or not, what’s important is that more Americans are connecting to fiber than ever before, and that’s something to celebrate.

In addition to the recent successes seen by both UTOPIA and Strata Networks, Google Fiber has been slowly but steadily expanding its footprint across various Utah cities after expansion was effectively frozen in 2016 due to executive concerns about higher costs. Lehi officials told ILSR they held conversations with Google before deciding on Strata Networks as its build partner. 

“You’re just seeing so much competition in these marketplaces,” Mckinley said. “Google Fiber’s fastest growing market is in Utah. Why? I’ve asked them straight out and they’ve said because it’s an educated population base. It’s young, it has really good education levels, and it’s had fiber providers here for twenty years.”

BroadbandNow currently ranks Utah thirteenth among all U.S. states in terms of broadband availability and speed. The crowdsourced broadband speedtest firm Ookla similarly ranks Utah as the thirtieth fastest state in terms of median fixed broadband speeds

Regardless of the route taken by local cities, those numbers should begin to improve dramatically courtesy of a rotating crop of creative alternatives to telecom monopoly power. That may, in turn, foster a greater appreciation for not just locally-owned and operated broadband networks, but the potential impact open access fiber can have on the nation’s marginally competitive telecom sector.

Header image of Frontrunner station in American Fork courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Inline aerial image of West Haven, Utah courtesy of City of West Haven website