BY REBECCA PALMER
CENTERVILLE — This city has become the first in the state where all single-family homes and all businesses can connect to municipally owned fiber Internet infrastructure.
UTOPIA, the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency, finished the bulk of its building in the city this month. Construction in Layton, which is also part of the interlocal agency, has not yet been finished.
Many public institutions in both cities have been connected. In Layton, UTOPIA helped connect the Weber State University Layton campus and the institution’s primary campus in Ogden, it said in a press release. In Centerville, it has connected schools, the city and even provides free lightning-fast wireless connection from many parks.
Meanwhile, the 12-year-old public company is mired in debt. It’s sister agency, the Utah Infrastructure Agency, took out a $65 million bond, which is being used to fund operations.
The UIA was created with only some of the cities that joined to create UTOPIA. They have been financed with some subscriber revenue, but mostly with federal government funds and the proceeds of bonds taken out against city sales tax revenue. The pair of entities was on the receiving end of a scathing audit this summer.
Last month, the agency made a bond payment with 100 percent subscriber proceeds and was able to put off a second round of debt funding, said its spokesman Jason Russell.
“We aren’t set up to be a moneymaking endeavor, so obviously we’re trying to be very cost-conscious and manage our funds and be frugal that way,” he said. “We do have hopes and expectations of turning things in a positive direction, of course. We’re trying to get to operational break-even and trying to be self-sufficient that way.”
UTOPIA offers Internet connection speeds to homes and businesses that range from 100 Megabits-per-second to 10 Gigabits-per-second, for uploading and downloading.
These speeds dwarf those of private-sector providers, and come at lower cost. For example, 10 separate T1 lines would have to be bundled together for one business to match the speeds UTOPIA makes possible with a single line, said UTOPIA business sales specialist Carl Harry. Most businesses have only one T1 line.
Although the agency’s construction efforts are financed by all taxpayers, only 22 percent of residents in Centerville and 10 percent of businesses have signed up for the service. According to state law, which changed since UTOPIA was founded, customers must do so through third-party providers.
UTOPIA only recently made a push to sign businesses up for the service, although it has touted the benefits of fast fiber for businesses for years.
The 10-percent sign-up rate may be due to the high number of small businesses and national chains in the city, for whom existing services are a poor match or are locked into years-long contracts with other providers, said Centerville Asst. City Manager Blaine Lutz.
He hopes to soon see sign-up rates at about 40 percent, especially on Main Street and west of I-15.
Challenges also exist for connecting Centerville residents who live in multi-family housing or developments controlled by homeowner’s associations.
Unless UTOPIA convinces those properties to allow infrastructure on private property, residences inside them can’t be connected. UTOPIA also looks for verbal agreements from customers to ensure that it’s not wasting construction funds.
Nevertheless, would-be customers complain. At the city, Lutz has received many comments from young and elderly condominium residents alike regarding the situation.
More tellingly, online social media sites such as Reddit.com see many complaints from UTOPIA-city residents about difficulties signing up for the service.
Lutz is excited that his city is done with mainline construction and can now focus on signing up customers and connecting their homes.
“We’re obviously pleased that it’s got to the point that we’re one of the few cities probably in the whole country that has a fully fiber-to-the-home network,” he said. “There’s just a growing, growing demand for high-speed Internet. Everything is more bandwidth-hungry.”firstname.lastname@example.org