Five Questions for UTOPIA Fiber
January 10th, 2020
The Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA) originated in 2004 as 11 Utah cities joined together to build and operate a fiber-to-the-premises network to serve households and businesses within their communities. Based in Murray, Utah and employing 60 staff members, the network is available to more than 100,000 businesses and residences. Roger Timmerman, Executive Director, and Kim McKinley, Chief Marketing Officer, sat down with us to discuss UTOPIA Fiber and the organization’s role in Utah’s economic development.
In general terms, what does UTOPIA Fiber do?
RT: UTOPIA is technically an inter-local government entity, similar to others that offer electrical or water services. UTOPIA Fiber works with cities, counties, state agencies, and other entities to build fiber infrastructure.
UTOPIA Fiber connects residents and businesses to the nation’s fastest internet service. We are the largest open-access network in the country, meaning that we build and maintain fiber-optic infrastructure, then partner with local and national internet service providers to offer internet, phone, and TV service. In all, our customers have access to 25 different vetted providers (XMission, Veracity Networks, and Beehive Broadband, to name a few), and many are Utah-based companies. In a nutshell, homes and businesses with UTOPIA Fiber service have the fastest speeds in the nation and competitive pricing.
KM: One of our recent projects was to build out UTOPIA Fiber infrastructure in the City of Morgan. Rural communities tend to lack ubiquitous access to high-speed internet, yet Morgan’s residents now have access to the fastest internet speeds in the country. Notably, Morgan has faster broadband than many tech hot spots, including the Silicon Valley and parts of our own Silicon Slopes!
With the new fiber infrastructure, the city itself can serve its residents more efficiently. This means employees can work in virtual offices and spend less time commuting. Businesses can serve their customers online more effectively. It’s been a game changer for the public and private sectors!
What do you view as UTOPIA Fiber’s role in helping the Utah economy grow?
RT: For one thing, it’s a win-win for our cities. Plainly put, access to UTOPIA Fiber saves cities, businesses, and residents money while providing better quality services. Our Utah communities then become more attractive to out-of-state residents and businesses looking to relocate or expand.
The high-speed connectivity we provide is also helping to close the Digital Divide that rural and low-to-moderate income communities in Utah can face. We cannot emphasize the importance of this benefit enough. Those without access to high-speed broadband will face great economic challenges ahead. Similar to turn-of-the century electrification, our fiber services are modern-day vital infrastructure that communities must have to attract economic development. The national carriers are simply not making the investments required to make this happen, but we are.
KM: UTOPIA Fiber is about advancing economic and community development. Traditional business customers comprise about 20 percent of our base and enjoy enterprise-level services that are available on our network. Importantly, we’re also advancing fiber-to-the-home builds. By doing so, we’re responding to the remote-work trend that’s sweeping the nation. Within a few years, it’s anticipated that a third of the workforce will work remotely. This will require fast, reliable, and affordable high-speed fiber connectivity that UTOPIA Fiber already provides. By having an agency like UTOPIA Fiber, Utah is one of the few states powerfully positioned for future economic growth.
UTOPIA Fiber encountered some financial hurdles in the past. What’s new that the general public may not be aware of?
RT: I’m proud to say that for the last several years, UTOPIA Fiber has been financially strong and growing. There certainly were challenges when I was brought in, but working with our outstanding board and determined employees, we made a lot of sound decisions that are responsible for UTOPIA Fiber’s remarkable turnaround. It was truly a team effort! Right now, the biggest challenge is to carefully manage our growth so that customer service and operational quality are not compromised.
We reorganized to enable our ability to finance future projects with investment-grade bonding. Most members of the public might be surprised to learn that “UTOPIA Fiber” describes two sister agencies—one is called the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency—“UTOPIA”—and the other is called the Utah Infrastructure Agency or “UIA” for short. In November 2019, UIA closed on a $48 million round of funding to help expand the available network. It was the largest single funding round in agency history and bookended a successful year that included financings for specific projects in West Point ($7.2 million), Payson ($3.5 million), and Morgan ($2.6 million).
A core strength of UTOPIA Fiber is that we handle the whole project lifecycle in every community we serve. We secure the financing, build the infrastructure, sign up subscribers, and maintain the system over time. The local municipality’s responsibility is to assume a low-risk level of backstop on the financing.
Why is the municipal responsibility such a low risk? All UTOPIA Fiber projects since 2009 are being paid for by current subscriber revenues. This means that there is no cost or subsidy from taxpayers or participating communities. New projects benefit from UTOPIA Fiber’s successful model and get the benefit of our existing operations and economies of scale.
KM: Another big shift has been our focus on customer service. We are now the highest-ranked telecom provider in Utah and among the highest ranked businesses overall. The UTOPIA Fiber team is properly trained and works with residential customers and service providers to provide a seamless customer experience. We celebrated when our net promoter score recently reached 64! By comparison, national carriers typically have scores in the negative range. [Any NPS score above 50 is considered “excellent.”- Ed.]
What major trends for your industry do you see on the horizon and how are you investing ahead of those changes?
RT: The future looks really cool. We’ll still be making major investments to deploy fiber to meet community demand, but we’ll also start seeing new applications to grow atop our fiber network. Here’s some of what we’re already working on across Utah:
- Measuring Air Quality: Understanding the quality of the air we breathe is a major issue among residents and healthcare professionals. Air quality sensors have become an integral part of UTOPIA Fiber installations. Because of the density of our air sensors, cities with UTOPIA Fiber have a better idea of air quality at the neighborhood — or even at the individual block — level. That’s not currently possible in cities without UTOPIA Fiber. Check out the interactive maps shared by the KSL Air Quality Network and Purpleair.com.
- Preventing Wildfires: We are working with BYU students on an important wildfire early-detection project called the Edwin Project (see http://edwinproject.org). By utilizing fiber-connected thermal-imaging cameras, we can scan high-risk areas, automatically detect wildfires, and better enforce fire restrictions. This has the potential of dramatically improving the response times for first responders, potentially saving lives and property.
KM: Transportation and entertainment are changing, too:
- Autonomous Vehicles: Autonomous and connected vehicles are another trend on the horizon, and getting them to operate safely and seamlessly with other vehicle and pedestrian traffic is of great importance. That’s why all new fiber infrastructure we install meets or exceeds UDOT specifications. Connectivity won’t be an obstacle for testing and implementing autonomous vehicles in UTOPIA Fiber communities.
- Gaming, Streaming, and Virtual Reality: At January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, many new products were presented to the public for the first time. Virtual reality, online gaming, and video streaming technologies are hotter than ever and require access to faster connectivity. Our 10-gigabit service will be key as these uses become more popular.
What message do you have for out-of-state site selectors and corporate executives considering Utah for an expansion project?
RT: Utah now has the best connectivity in the county, and UTOPIA Fiber will work with national providers to support the needs of individual businesses expanding here. Our Open Access model—public infrastructure with private service providers—creates a competitive market environment for our business and residential customers. And, we’re building fiber, fast!
UTOPIA Fiber is a Builder’s Circle investor in EDCUtah. For more information, visit www.utopiafiber.com.