What Now for Murray and UTOPIA?

May 8th, 2013


This article originally ran in the Murray Journal on May 8, 2013 by Peri Kinder

When the Murray City Council voted against providing nearly $170,000 to UTOPIA for operating costs, it left many city leaders and residents wondering what happens next for the partnership between the city and the beleaguered Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency.

With Murray shooting down UTOPIA’s monetary request, the other partnering cities in the network have picked up the tab to cover operational costs—a move that makes some Murray City leaders a little uneasy.

“We have basically gone out together with the group, but haven’t paid our share of the ticket,” said Murray City UTOPIA Board Member Jan Wells. “I don’t know what consequences will come if we don’t pay our share of the operations.”

City leaders are looking at several options to remedy the situation, including taking a trip to Spanish Fork to study the way it manages its fiber-optic network infrastructure. Spanish Fork is the only place in the state where the city owns and administers its own high-speed network. Unlike UTOPIA cities, Spanish Fork can offer retail fiber-optic services because it was grandfathered in before the Municipal Cable TV and Public Telecommunications Services Act was passed, dis-allowing cities to offer retail services.

“Spanish Fork owns the fiber and is responsible for the residents who use it,” Wells said. “Residents sign up for the Internet through the city, just like power or water services. And it’s available to everyone.”

Although Murray can’t implement a retail service, the city is looking at a utility model where the city could take over operations, but residents would select from private cable providers. The city would maintain the infrastructure, creating a network that would become available to everyone in the city.

They are also very interested in the recent Google purchase of the iProvo fiber-optic system, and haven’t ruled out the possibility of a private company taking over. But no matter how Murray decides to handle the fiber-optic dilemma, they are on the hook to pay UTOPIA nearly $60 million; as are the other cities participating with UTOPIA.

Opinions differ between the mayor and the majority of the city council members about whether to stay with UTOPIA or cut ties, and Wells hopes to draft a resolution stating a direction so the city can move forward in regard to the telecommunications system. But some big questions remain, including whether UTOPIA can earn enough revenue to make the debt service payments, and how the city can bear the cost of the network and continue to care for its population.

“I’ve never been against the technology, but we have a responsibility to our residents to do our best,” Murray Councilmember Jim Brass said. “I want to find a solution, but the solution is not to stay the course.”

City leaders have received phone calls from business owners and residents currently connected to UTOPIA, worried about the future of their investment. For the time being, no more additional funds will be provided to UTOPIA from Murray coffers, but Murray Mayor Dan Snarr is concerned about equity within the UTOPIA cities. Currently, Murray is nearly 65 percent built out, while Layton has less than 20 percent of its infrastructure in place.

“I’m disappointed in a lot of ways because I know a lot of cities don’t have nearly the amount of infrastructure that we do,” Snarr said.  “I would like to see us step up and pay our fair share. This is a weighty decision. I know that.”