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UTOPIA Fiber Announces Completion of Latest Round of Funding, a $48 Million Network Expansion

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Photo of UTOPIA Fiber Executive Director Roger Timmerman at a board meeting by Drew Clark

The $48 Million capital investment will fund the continued growth of the UTOPIA Fiber network

MURRAY, Utah, November 21, 2019 – The Utah Infrastructure Agency has just completed its latest round of funding that will infuse the UTOPIA/UIA network with $48 million for the expansion of its network. UIA is a sister agency to UTOPIA Fiber. Although legally separate entities, UTOPIA and UIA functionally operate as one integrated system and both are marketed as UTOPIA Fiber, the country’s largest open-access fiber optic network.

The synergy provided by UIA’s partnership with UTOPIA Fiber allows both organizations to provide their citizens with a state-of-the-art broadband network. The majority of UTOPIA’s growth since 2009 has been due to their partnership with UIA. UIA has secured this funding in partnership with financial advisors Lewis Young Robertson & Burningham, Inc., KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc., a senior managing underwriter, and Gilmore & Bell, bond and disclosure counsel.

“We have the best partners in the business who have worked relentlessly over the past few months to get us to this point,” said Roger Timmerman, Executive Director of UTOPIA Fiber. “The demand for municipally-owned fiber has skyrocketed and we are excited to be a leader in the industry. Over the past four years, UTOPIA Fiber has doubled the number of subscribers on its fiber network and has entered into partnerships with several additional communities.”

UTOPIA Fiber provides business services in over 50 cities and has fiber-to-the-home networks in 14. They are an operational partner with Idaho Falls Fiber, who recently voted to extend their high-speed fiber network to their entire city. As the largest open-access fiber network in the country, UTOPIA Fiber is available to over 100,000 homes and businesses. They are also the fastest and highest rated Internet option in the state of Utah.

This round of funding is the fourth and largest that UIA has closed on within the last year, following financings for projects in Morgan City ($2.6M), West Point ($7.2M), and Payson ($3.5M). The UTOPIA Fiber network continues to bring competitive services from various ISP partners at the fastest speeds and best value.

UTOPIA Fiber’s open-access model ensures that communities have access to a free and open Internet without throttling, paid prioritization, or other provider interference. Participating cities also benefit from various smart-city applications that are enabled by the UTOPIA Fiber network. This includes air-quality monitoring, smart water and energy management, public WiFi, and many other smart-city applications. UTOPIA Fiber believes the future of open-access, municipally-owned broadband is bright, and are excited to be at the forefront of that movement.

About UTOPIA Fiber

The Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA) is a community-owned fiber optic network utilizing light to transfer information, making it the fastest communication and data transfer technology in use today. Created by a group of Utah cities, UTOPIA Fiber supports open-access and promotes competition in all telecommunication services. For more information, contact Kim McKinley, Chief Marketing Officer, UTOPIA Fiber.

Broadband Breakfast is a decade-old news organization based in Washington that is building a community of interest around broadband policy and internet technology, with a particular focus on better broadband infrastructure, the politics of privacy and the regulation of social media. Learn more about Broadband Breakfast.

Expert Opinion

Shrihari Pandit: States Can Enable Broadband Infrastructure Through Open Access Conduits

By creating open infrastructure systems, states can reduce the barriers to entry and foster increased broadband competition.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Shrihari Pandit, CEO of Stealth Communications

Now that the infrastructure bill has passed the Senate, we see key provisions included for broadband in America. In fact, a whopping $65B will go toward broadband funding — provided it passes the House this month. But, will throwing more money at broadband help to solve key issues like closing the digital divide and making broadband access more affordable for millions?

The short answer is: not necessarily. For years the federal government has provided subsidies to incumbent ISPs hoping they will solve key issues with broadband in America and still access to the internet continues to be a challenge. What we need is a radical broadband overhaul where we can level the playing field for smaller ISPs to compete in the marketplace and fill the gaps incumbent ISPs have neglected for years.

As the broadband infrastructure funding provisions emerge, it appears that states will have a major role in determining how to allocate these resources. And, they must make careful considerations to help connect the unconnected and meet the needs of their residents. As access to a robust digital communications network is so critical now – in an ongoing pandemic era – states also have to look ahead and ensure they are creating sustainable and long-term infrastructure in the public interest.

Creating open-access conduit systems

State governments should focus on enabling key infrastructure, namely conduits, rights of way and utility poles – as these are the biggest hurdles for ISPs looking to extend fiber. Sometimes referred to among pros as “layer zero”, the telecom market can be transformed with open-access conduit systems running across the country and extended locally. A conduit highway would be akin to the interstate in which fiber could be easily run between cities and towns across multiple states.

An open-access conduit system can help create a more approachable marketplace for new ISPs to enter and help to fill coverage gaps left un-served by incumbent ISPs. Easier and cheaper access to neutral utility poles would help to reduce the cost of broadband access and allow providers to easily pull their fiber optic infrastructure to homes, businesses, and wireless towers, especially vital for longer-distances in rural areas. In NYC, for example, there is a robust competitive marketplace enabled by a shared conduit system managed by Empire City Subway.

Although currently limited to boroughs of Manhattan and The Bronx, this carrier-neutral system allows multiple ISPs to run cables up and down streets with ease and provides a pathway to extend fiber access to additional NYC neighborhoods. Across the country, open-access models are proliferating, including Ammon, Idaho, as summarized in a recent report by Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

Leveling the ISP marketplace

By creating open infrastructure systems, more providers can enter the marketplace and create increased competition as the barriers to entry are reduced. Previously, incumbent ISPs have received billions of dollars to close the digital divide, – the divide, as well as their market power, persist.

By creating infrastructure that brings additional private ISPs into the marketplace, states can give residents and businesses  more choices to meet their internet needs which is in the best interest of everyone. More competition also means that incumbent ISPs need to step up their game and offer the services they boast about – or they risk losing market share to private competition. In other words, a long-term, sustainable solution.

Embracing the public infrastructure/private service model

When considering a new infrastructure project, oftentimes, the burden of proof lies with the state. However, with the public infrastructure/private service model, the risk is shared between the state and the ISP. This model enables cities and counties to finance and maintain infrastructure while also managing rights-of-way. And, private or incumbent ISPs can ensure broadband access including cable, fiber optic, or wireless. This is a scalable option for communities that are unaware of how to operate communications networks but want to own and control core communications assets.

States have a major undertaking ahead as they consider how to utilize their infrastructure funding to boost public works projects. As broadband infrastructure development has been so crucial in the last year, creating an improved marketplace for ISPs through open-access infrastructure should be their priority in their long-term public interest.  And with a public infrastructure/private service model, the risk will be shared with providers.

Shrihari Pandit is CEO and co-founder of the New York City-area fiber provider Stealth Communications. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Expert Opinion

Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Internet Service Providers Benefit From a Shared Fiber Network Infrastructure

Both emerging and established internet service providers will stand to gain from SiFi Networks’ shared broadband model.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Ben Bawtree-Jobson, CEO of fiber infrastructure developer SiFi Networks

“Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism, it’s exploitation.” These were words spoken by President Joe Biden in July 2021, minutes before he signed an executive order to promote competition in the U.S. economy. This is poignantly relevant to telecom companies in the United States. In the U.S., an industry that limits consumer choice makes it hard for small Internet Service Providers to break through.

As the CEO of fiber infrastructure developer SiFi Networks, I can attest that both emerging and established ISPs stand to gain from a shared broadband model.

Indeed, without healthy competition in the economy, big players could potentially change and charge whatever they want for services that don’t suit the needs of the consumer. For many Americans, this means limited options in terms of providers and services. So, how have we got here?

Monopolies: A competitive advantage?

ISPs have always seen it as a competitive advantage to own and operate their own broadband infrastructure. This makes it difficult for smaller companies to break through, stifling competition and maximizing profits for established corporations. However, heavy investments in network infrastructure can be a double-edged sword — companies have so far disregarded the costs of tying themselves up in long-term infrastructure projects and are now struggling to divest and adapt to a rapidly changing market.

This is why many U.S. towns are still served by slow, outdated cable and the national fiber coverage sits at a meager 32 per cent. But, in an age where the internet is critical for education, healthcare and business growth, consumer demands for high-speed connectivity make fiber optic the only viable option.

As it stands, only the big telecoms players can feasibly upgrade their cable networks. However, this is costly, disruptive, and takes years to complete, meaning ISPs cannot expect a quick return on investment.

A new broadband ecosystem is needed to give ISPs of all sizes the chance to respond to consumer demands without necessarily overhauling their existing network infrastructure, a costly and time-consuming option. It is here that embracing open access broadband models may prove effective and helpful.

Don’t miss Broadband Breakfast’s annual Digital Infrastructure Investment mini-conference, which is sponsored by entities including SiFi Networks. The event unites infrastructure investment fund managers, institutional investors, private equity and venture capitalists with senior broadband leaders and brings clarity to the next business model for advanced digital infrastructure. 

Fostering competition with open access

Open access infrastructure essentially means sharing a fiber optic network. Many companies are reluctant to use this model because they believe that increased competition could negatively affect their profits. In reality, there are many benefits to be gained from using a shared network infrastructure. The first is that open access broadband gives ISPs access to a larger pool of potential customers. Giving consumers more choice over their broadband packages and providers will attract a more diverse demographic of customers and thus, promote overall revenue.

At a time when customer demand dictates the need to upgrade services and improve connectivity speed and quality, open access can also help ISPs of all sizes minimize costs. Construction and maintenance of a network is carried out by the infrastructure developer, freeing up budget for ISPs, who can redirect it into areas of the business that need extra attention, such as boosting customer relationships. Larger ISPs, who spend millions of dollars per year maintaining their network infrastructure, could pull their savings into improving and diversifying their product offerings.

Sharing an infrastructure will mean more ISPs can operate in the market, fostering competition, lowering prices and offering better consumer choice. Citizens who previously felt cut-off from basic educational and healthcare services because they couldn’t afford their only broadband option, should then be able to pursue more affordable packages. This will naturally encourage more residents and businesses to subscribe, creating a larger pool of potential customers and ultimately improving economic growth and social mobility.

Open access is attractive to larger ISPs too. As it stands, the telecoms sector ranks at the bottom of 46 industries for customer satisfaction according to the American Consumer Satisfaction Index. Therefore, if they didn’t need to budget for the operation and maintenance of their fiber, and to upgrade outdated copper-based networks that no longer satisfy consumers’ demands, more money could be invested in bettering customer communication and service. If customers are happy with their ISP, and a good brand reputation can be established, this will be a huge competitive advantage.

“Fair competition is what made America the wealthiest, most innovative nation in history,” said Biden during his White House press conference. If smaller ISPs had a fair chance to enter the market, the well-established big players could stay competitive by improving their customer experience and tailoring their services to satisfy the needs of their customers. Ownership of the network infrastructure is no longer the only or even the best way to compete in the high-speed internet space. An open-access model will diversify the market and allow a variety of ISPs to thrive.

Ben Bawtree-Jobson is CEO of SiFi Networks, which funds, builds and owns FiberCity networks. Internet Service Providers, 4G/5G carriers and other service providers wishing to deliver ubiquitous high-speed broadband services to business and residential properties in cities make use of FiberCity networks, which also offer connectivity for city-wide Internet of Things applications. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Open Access

Population Center in Chautauqua County May Be First City in New York With Municipal Fiber

Jamestown is hoping an open access network would make internet more affordable.

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Jamestown Mayor Eddie Sundquist

August 18, 2021 — Jamestown – home to 30,000 residents, the largest population center in western Chautauqua County – could become the first city in the state of New York to construct a citywide municipal fiber network using American Rescue Plan relief funds.

In April, Mayor Eddie Sundquist formed a task force to assess the potential for a municipal fiber network in Jamestown. The city is currently working with EntryPoint Networks on a feasibility study to estimate the overall cost of the project, as well as surveying residential interest in building a municipally owned open access broadband network in Jamestown.

If the city decides to go through with the project, Jamestown will be the first city in New York state to embark on a municipal fiber build. Although many cities across New York state own dark fiber assets, and cooperatives in the southeastern and northern regions of the state are serving some residents, no city in the Empire State has moved forward with building a citywide fiber-to-the-home network.

Idea dating back to Sundquist’s mayoral campaign 

Connecting citizens to new technology was a component of Mayor Eddie Sundquist’s 2019 mayoral campaign, centered around efforts to enhance economic development and community revitalization projects.

“Who says that we can’t become a technology hub attracting businesses around the country with our low cost of living and rich resources? Who says we can’t wire broadband and fiber to every home and business in this city at a lower cost?,” WRFA reported Sundquist campaigning in 2019.

In an interview with the Institute for Local Self Reliance, Mayor Sundquist recalled that the message was well-received by Jamestown residents, and that even pre-pandemic, city residents were calling for more reliable Internet access offering higher speeds.

Jamestown residents are currently stuck with one or two Internet Service Providers to choose from: Charter Spectrum and Windstream. In the process of conducting the feasibility study, network planners learned that the cost for Internet access in the community is comparatively high for the lower-than-average Internet access speeds residents are receiving.

With a little more than a year in office under his belt, Mayor Sundquist sees the proposed network as more than infrastructure essential to growing the economy. He considers the fiber network the key to connecting citizens to 21st century opportunities and revolutionizing the way residents connect and interact.

Impacts of open access municipal fiber

Under the open access network model Jamestown is pursuing, the city would own and maintain all network infrastructure, which the city would then lease to third-party ISPs to compete in offering Internet services to residents. Since the city would own the infrastructure, it would be able to establish basic network policies to address community-specific needs, such as prohibiting bandwidth caps or providing a service option affordable for low-income residents.

To ensure that low-income households are able to access the network, Sundquist said the city would require ISPs offering service over the network to provide a low-speed, low-cost Lifeline service option.

Throughout the pandemic, private providers refused to connect local residents with outstanding balances to free services being offered under the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, Sundquist said, echoing what he recently told WNY News.

“Just from talking to families and school kids alone, the ability to have free or low-cost internet is incredible, it is such a huge need. We’ve had so many families that had to go without because a lot of these companies refused to connect them up because of past due balances and bills.”

Although Sundquist said the low-speed Lifeline option would provide enough bandwidth for Jamestown’s residents to access virtual education and telehealth resources, Jamestown could consider taking a page from the book of Hillsboro, Oregon, whose citywide FTTH network provides symmetrical gigabit connections for $10 a month to qualifying low-income families. The city of Jamestown could also choose to model Chattanooga, Tennessee. Chattanooga’s EPB Fiber network recently committed to supplying low-income households with students free 100 Mbps symmetrical connections.

Besides the benefits a municipal fiber network would have for Jamestown students, it would also be a game-changer for Jamestown’s intergovernmental operations.

The municipal network could alleviate recurring charges the city pays to lease Internet and telephone services from multiple providers. Though unsure of the exact figure, Mayor Sundquist said that nearly all municipal buildings are connected with fiber service which costs “around $500 a month per building.” As the city owns several buildings, “the costs are astronomical when you tie in phone services and Voice over IP (VoIP) services. We’re talking thousands and thousands per building,” Sundquist said.

The cost-saving benefits of a city-owned fiber network would also aid Jamestown’s municipal power plant. The city maintains a utility company which currently leases Internet service. “To be able to connect . . . our utility service or to allow our utility service to use their own connection between substations is really critical,” Sundquist said. “It [would provide] a really incredible savings to the city.”

Beyond that, the network would also assist in helping Jamestown move towards Smart City initiatives, such as digital monitoring of water and electric meters.

Prioritizing mental health with federal relief funds

Jamestown is considering using $3 million of the $28 million in American Rescue Plan relief funds the city is set to receive over the next three years to build out broadband infrastructure.

According to the city’s Recovery Funds Master Plan [pdf], the highest spending category the city of Jamestown is looking to invest in is economic development, aiming to increase tourism, retool businesses, and attract new tech companies to a “Rust Belt” city. Another priority is for the city to invest in general services to complete city construction projects that have been on hold.

Also high on the city’s spending priority list is to direct relief funds to address housing and neighborhood issues, as well as mental health issues, which have become increasingly prevalent as residents have struggled to cope with the ongoing pandemic.

Jamestown’s Master Plan reports that “in the city alone, 6.5% of all calls for service from the Jamestown Police Department are to check on the well-being of an individual. This, coupled with an increasing homeless population in the city, creates the need to radically change how we address housing and mental health disparities in our community.”

In addition to a Mental Health Rapid Response project the city will be dedicating relief funds to, investing in a municipal fiber network would also support city efforts to improve access to mental health resources.

According to Sundquist, the low-cost Lifeline service required of ISPs on the citywide network would support mental telehealth initiatives and prove valuable to residents most afflicted by the pandemic by giving them a way to access telehealth services.

The city would also be able to subdivide and segment the municipal network to support its mental health goals. “For example, if we really needed to connect with folks that needed mental health evaluations or are currently working with therapists, we could create a specialty private network off of our network,” Mayor Sundquist told ILSR.

Mayor Sundquist said he is excited about the potential of using American Rescue Plan funds to improve Internet access across Jamestown, and for the immeasurable benefits a municipal open access fiber network could bring to town.

Listen to Episode 460 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast to learn more about the connectivity issues afflicting the Western part of New York state.

Check out this video on Mayor Sundquist’s effort in Jamestown.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Jericho Casper, a reporter for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally appearing at MuniNetworks.org on August 13, 2021, the piece is republished with permission.

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