April 18, 2024

Utah’s Big Internet Responds to Critics Shrouded in Mystery

A new fight is brewing over how Utahns view high-speed internet access, fueled by the transformative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since November, the community-owned network created in Utah’s backyard and known as UTOPIA has been hit by a dark national television and mail campaign vilifying it for being government-run and supposedly mired in debt.

Officials at Murray-based UTOPIA Fiber, now the nation’s largest municipal open access network, this week announced plans to counter with a media blitz of their own, highlighting the 22-year-old consortium’s local roots and 21-year-old strong backing. Utah cities. .

Its new “Chosen by YOUtah” media outreach also aims to publicize the Internet provider’s high metrics for network reliability and satisfaction among a customer base that now exceeds 62,000 in communities from the Wasatch Front to the that its fiber network serves with broadband.

UTOPIA leaders say they are confused about the timing of the recent attack campaign, nearly 15 years after a dramatic business turnaround that emerged from new management and a top-to-bottom restructuring of its finances in 2009.

“It really is strange,” said Roger Timmerman, executive director and CEO of UTOPIA, “because from our perspective, despite all this garbage and misinformation, things at UTOPIA are actually better than ever.”

‘Join the fight’

In addition to producing a website, NoGovInternet.com, the million-dollar anti-UTOPIA campaign has flooded some Salt Lake County homes with leaflets and can be traced to a Washington, D.C. group called the Domestic Policy Caucus, which appears to ally with conservative causes.

“Let’s not let politicians mess with our Internet,” the website says.

The basic site offers free-enterprise-focused critiques of government broadband networks, and features examples of others with difficult financial histories in Bristol, Virginia, and Traverse City, Michigan, as well as in Provo, where a city-run network called iProvo failed before being sold to Google for $1.

The issue-oriented group also attacks UTOPIA for the crippling debt incurred early in its history and describes the network as a continuous drain on taxpayer dollars. “Join the fight,” he urges, directing users to an online petition and suggesting they contact state lawmakers.

Representatives of the dark money group, which is not required to publicly reveal the identities of its donors, did not respond to a question from the Salt Lake Tribune about who is backing the campaign and its key claims.

Timmerman and others at UTOPIA say that campaign supporters “don’t seem to care about the truth. “They are targeting our potential growth with misinformation.”

A spokesman for the Utah-based National Policy Caucus-backed campaign, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, said he also didn’t know who was paying for the national advertising blitz.

Hughes added, however, that his involvement with NoGovInternet.com was part of “a Utah effort” and its themes resonated on behalf of the public, as well as the interests of private-sector Internet service providers who look to UTOPIA as unfair competition. It is not intended, he said, to undo what UTOPIA has built or its existing relationships with cities, but rather to educate residents and elected leaders in cities who might consider joining the public network.

“We just want to warn that cities and governments that get into the Internet business are out of their depth,” Hughes said, “and have a history of not doing well.”

Growth ‘advancing rapidly’

Broadband demand continues to be transformed by pandemic shutdowns and how Utahns adapted to working from home, remote learning and access to telemedicine. Trends continue to shape public perception about the need for reliable broadband while increasing financial risks over who provides that access.

UTOPIA added a record 10,000 new subscribers last year, bringing it to more than 62,000 active subscribers, Timmerman said, making it the largest and fastest-growing municipal network in the country, with fiber lines running nearby of 200,000 homes and businesses.

“It took us several years to get to this point,” he said, “and now the growth is moving really fast.”

West Valley City was one of 11 cities that founded UTOPIA in 2002 in hopes of filling a gap in high-speed access in their communities that was not being filled by private Internet providers. Its former city attorney, Nicole Cottle, now works as general counsel for UTOPIA and said it’s been exciting to see communities like West Valley “level up” with better broadband access.

“I happen to have a firsthand account of how it helped our community thrive, especially during COVID,” Cottle said. “We saw the great benefits… and it’s important to remember that this is a community-driven effort and unique in the entire country.”

He added that the boost to economic development thanks to greater connectivity had been “huge”.

UTOPIA officials note that, like other municipal networks, it acts as a kind of Internet infrastructure wholesaler. That means it builds and maintains high-speed fiber-to-the-home networks in partnership with participating cities and then lets a list of 15 private Internet service providers provide access and services to customers. A portion of subscribers’ income goes to repay municipal bonds issued to finance the construction of the network.

Pointed to recent victories?

The municipal network, with network centers in Murray and South Salt Lake, has been on a roll in recent months, including announcements that it has completed network development in Cedar Hills, Syracuse and Santa Clara while continuing to expand a list of cities members. .

In another high-profile victory, the Bountiful City Council voted unanimously over the summer to join UTOPIA after years of study and debate, despite a signature-gathering effort in that city of 45,000 residents to stop the proposal.

“Bountiful was kind of a watershed moment, because Bountiful is pretty conservative,” said Pete Ashdown, owner and operator of XMission, Utah’s oldest Internet service provider and UTOPIA fiber services retailer. UTOPIA’s competitors, he said, could now be trying to prevent other cities and municipalities from following the same path.

A national trade organization for municipal networks, the American Public Broadband Association, suggested when Bountiful signed up that big “incumbent” cable and Internet providers, such as Comcast and CenturyLink, were targeting the city as part of a campaign. misleading, against what she called “community broadband freedom of choice.”

“Incumbents are running these campaigns,” said the group’s chief executive, Gig Sohn, “even as they refuse to provide universal connectivity to those communities.”

With billions of dollars for broadband now available to states under recent federal infrastructure spending, Sohn said, “there is a huge opportunity for cities and towns to decide for themselves what kind of broadband networks they would cover.” best meet the needs of everyone in their communities. communities, not just a few rich people.”

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