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Ownership Models Are Evolving to Serve the Unserved, Say Panelists at Digital Infrastructure Investment

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Screenshot of UTOPIA Fiber CEO Roger Timmerman from the webcast

August 11, 2020 — As America prioritizes closing the digital divide, critical last-mile digital infrastructure ownership models are expanding and differentiating to serve the unserved.

Different towns across America are in different situations in terms of the availability of existing digital infrastructure assets.

Visit Digital Infrastructure Investment for complete information and summaries of the sessions from the Broadband Breakfast mini-conference, which is being re-broadcast at Broadband Communities Virtual Summit.

At the conference, leaders of entities actively expanding the traditional financing, operating and managing models of networks spoke on the evolution of ownership models and the future of last-mile infrastructure.

The session was moderated by Chris Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks program of the Institute for Local Self Reliance.

UTOPIA Fiber is a broadband provider active in 16 Utah cities. It deploys and operates a fiber-to-the-premises network to businesses and households within the cities it serves.

UTOPIA Fiber utilizes a flexible approach, deploying different models depending on the setting, which enables more individuals to join the network, said CEO Roger Timmerman.

Under its typical model, UTOPIA Fiber and its member cities own and operate the middle-mile and last-mile of fiber networks, while residential customers purchase service from about 30 different competitive internet service providers operating on the network.

Because different locales have different needs, UTOPIA Fiber models the traditional open-access approach in other markets, Timmerman said.

Monica Webb, director of market development and government affairs at Ting Internet, maintained the importance of utilizing different models depending on the needs of local stakeholders.

Ting is an internet service provider that has similarly worked in many public-private partnerships, building and servicing fiber networks across the United States.

In Charlottesville, Virginia, the first market Ting internet entered, the company bought an existing fiber provider, meaning that it operates as a vertically-integrated private company within the city.

Yet in Westminster, Maryland, the local government led the effort to build last-mile fiber infrastructure. Ting then partnered with the city to operate on the network.

In Fullerton, California, SiFi Networks launched an open access network that enabled other private companies, such as Ting and Gigabit Now, to compete to deliver services.

According to Webb, open access models benefit the company by allowing them to take on less design and construction responsibilities so that they can instead focus on providing reliable service to customers.

Peggy Schaffer, executive director of ConnectME Authority, spoke about the Maine initiative, an effort aimed at expanding broadband access to areas which have little prospect for access to high speed broadband.

ConnectME awards grants for last-mile infrastructure, which provide a percentage of the cost. The grants are then matched with funding from an internet service provider or a community.

According to Schaffer, ConnectME aims to build partnerships with communities and businesses to identify needs and highlight opportunities across the state.

In discussion, the group highlighted barriers to last-mile infrastructure investment.

Webb detailed how incumbent providers fought Ting when they attempted to build last-mile infrastructure in areas where incumbents had existing fiber assets.

“If AT&T has existing fiber in a neighborhood, we won’t build that neighborhood,” Webb said.

While the panelists noted the slew of obstacles in their way, they still expressed hope.

Timmerman reported that demand has vastly increased for last-mile fiber infrastructure as teleworking becomes the new normal.

“UTOPIA is adding anywhere from 900 to 1100 new customers every month,” said Timmerman. “People need this type of connectivity.”

Broadband is a street-by-street battle, he added, and creative reactive models are necessary to connect netizens to reliable last-mile infrastructure.

Former Assistant Editor Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide. She has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband. She is now Associate Broadband Researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance's Community Broadband Network Initiative.

Open Access

UTOPIA Fiber Pushes into Southern Utah

The expansion will bring fiber-to-the-home to residents of two additional Utahn cities.

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Roger Timmerman, executive director of UTOPIA Fiber

WASHINGTON, January 6, 2022 – Community-owned fiber optic network UTOPIA Fiber announced in a press release Wednesday that it will implement fiber-to-the-home service in the Utah cities of Cedar Hills and Santa Clara.

The expansion into Washington County’s Santa Clara marks UTOPIA Fiber’s first expansion into southern Utah.

“We’re really excited to continue our momentum in Utah County and to venture into southern Utah where Santa Clara will become the first all-fiber city in Washington County,” said Roger Timmerman, executive director of UTOPIA Fiber.

This move marks UTOPIA’s 18th and 19th city expansions and comes with a $12 million price tag. Just last month, UTOPIA completed its network in Payson City, Utah. The telecom provides business services in 50 cities.

In all its serviced cities, UTOPIA offers residential speeds of up to 10 Gigabits per second and business speeds of up to 100 Gigabits per second – both the fastest respective speeds offered in the U.S. In total, the network provides fiber availability to more than 130,000 businesses and residences across its 50 serviced communities.

In its press release, UTOPIA promoted its expansion by citing research showing that residential and commercial property values increase when they are served by a fiber network. It added that its open access model, which allows infrastructure sharing with other providers, “protects a net-neutral internet without throttling, paid prioritization, or other provider interference.”

UTOPIA Fiber is a Broadband Breakfast Sponsor.

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Open Access

Experts Debate Merits of Open Access Models on Broadband Breakfast Live Event

Keller and Heckman Partner Jim Baller says model could lead to a race to the bottom, but UTOPIA CEO disagrees.

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Screenshot from Broadband Breakfast Live Online episode on December 15. Drew Clark (top-left), Jim Baller (top-right), Roger Timmerman (bottom-left), Dwight ‘Doc’ Wininger (bottom-right)

WASHINGTON, December 16, 2021 – Though open access projects are finding success in some parts of the country, some experts remain unconvinced that the model will prove viable for most communities.

During the Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on Wednesday, UTOPIA Fiber Executive Director and CEO Roger Timmerman and Jim Baller, partner at law firm Keller and Heckman LLP partner, debated the merits of the model that allows service providers to use the same infrastructure.

Timmerman, whose UTOPIA Fiber operates an open access model in Utah and southern Idaho, said his company has seen success with open access fiber infrastructure being a sustainable and scalable model to meet whatever demands future technology may place on consumers and businesses.

Sixteen internet service providers use infrastructure built and leased by UTOPIA, a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast, to offer residential areas up to 10 Gigabits per second symmetrical speeds.

But Baller said he is concerned that shared infrastructure will just force providers to engage in a price war that will lead to a race to the bottom. He painted a picture of an open access model whereby wholesalers who lease their infrastructure to internet service providers find themselves in a kind of purgatory where no one is making any money – the wholesaler is unable to compel ISPs to raise their prices, and the ISPs feel they can only compete by undercutting their competition. He described the situation as “open access run amok.

“I would love to see open access work, I just urge caution, because you need to do hard analysis in a particular market,” said Baller. “Open access may not be something that is possible up front, but it can be over time.

“You have to look at the numbers very carefully and assess what the circumstances are and make your decision based on what is in front of you,” he said. “There is no one size shoe that fits all in these circumstances.”

In response to the criticism that open access will drive prices into the ground, Timmerman said that the largest provider in UTOPIA’s network is also the most expensive. “It has not been a race to the bottom, it has actually been the opposite,” he said.

Timmerman added successful providers are ones “that can differentiate themselves on quality, reputation, consumer privacy,” and added that the nature of the model allows them to do so at a low barrier to entry.

Timmerman described how UTOPIA has been able to “raise the bar” on their standards for accepting ISPs to partner with, and how they have had to “beat [companies] off with a stick,” due to increased interest in working with UTOPIA.

“We want well established, successful companies because we have a lot on the hook – I cannot afford to put [these] assets at risk with some fly-by-night company. We work hand in hand with providers on quality and reputation to make sure that we both win and make sure that cities and participants win.”

For his part, Timmerman conceded that there is no “one size fits all model,” but argued that most communities’ needs can be satisfied through the framework of an open access build.

“We have had a lot of conversations with communities; what [communities] have to bring to the table and what their needs are, and how we might fill all those roles and deliver a successful system.

“The more a city wants and dictates into a project, the more skin in the game they may need to have,” Timmerman added.

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. You can watch the December 15, 2021, event on this page. You can also PARTICIPATE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event. REGISTER HERE.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021, 12 Noon ET — How Public Private Partnerships Represent an Opportunity for Broadband Deployment

In the past two years, public and private entities have greatly increased their collaboration to expand broadband access for Americans. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the telecom industry has been forced to find innovative solutions to connect households to essential online services. In this Broadband Breakfast Live Online event, we will explore the factors driving public-private partnerships in telecom and look at where such partnerships can take us next. Various economic and business forces underlie these partnerships. We’ll also discuss the urgent need for these partnerships in the fight to connect the country.

Panelists for this Broadband Breakfast Live Online session:

  • Jim Baller, Partner, Keller & Heckman
  • Roger Timmerman, CEO, UTOPIA Fiber
  • Dwight ‘Doc’ Wininger, Director of External Relations, Allo Fiber
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Panelist resources:

Jim Baller is a partner at Keller & Heckman. He was founder of the US Broadband Coalition, a diverse group that fostered a broad national consensus on the need for a national broadband strategy and recommended the framework that was subsequently reflected in the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan. A consultant to Google’s Fiber for Communities project, he is also the co-founder and president of the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, an alliance that works to prevent or remove barriers to the ability of local governments to make the critical broadband infrastructure decisions that affect their communities.

Roger Timmerman has been serving as UTOPIA Fiber’s Executive Director since 2016 and has been a technology management professional in telecommunications and information technology for over 15 years. Roger has been designing and building networks throughout his career in various roles including Vice President of Engineering for Vivint Wireless, CTO for UTOPIA Fiber, Network Engineer for iProvo, and Network Product Manager for Brigham Young University. Roger earned his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Information Technology from Brigham Young University.

Dwight ‘Doc’ Wininger (pronounced WINE-ing-grr) has worked on telecommunications policy issues since the 1980s, first as Executive Director of the Nebraska Public Service Commission and then for a variety of private sector providers and consulting firms. He has worked on fiber optic deployments in multiple states and has been a featured speaker at various conferences on rural broadband deployment. In his current position, Wininger is responsible for local, state and federal government relations for ALLO Communications and is also heading up market development for the company’s expansion into the State of Arizona.

Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney. Drew brings experts and practitioners together to advance the benefits provided by broadband. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he served as head of a State Broadband Initiative, the Partnership for a Connected Illinois. He is also the President of the Rural Telecommunications Congress.

WATCH HERE, or on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

SUBSCRIBE to the Broadband Breakfast YouTube channel. That way, you will be notified when events go live. Watch on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

See a complete list of upcoming and past Broadband Breakfast Live Online events.

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Open Access

UTOPIA Fiber Completes Payson City Project and Publishes Results of Customer Feedback Survey

UTOPIA customers deep in red states favor net neutrality by a wide margin.

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A photo of a fiber installer courtesy UTOPIA Fiber

November 29, 2021 – UTOPIA Fiber announced the completion of a fiber-optic internet network in one of its original 11 cities of Payson, Utah, on November 22.

All 20,000 residents and businesses in Payson City, Utah, have access to UTOPIA’s all fiber, open-access model, according to UTOPIA Fiber. Payson is the eighth of the original group of 11 cities to finalize its broadband infrastructure deployments.

“The original cities were visionaries before their time,” said UTOPIA Fiber Chief Marketing Officer Kimberly McKinley. “We need to give a lot of credit to Payson. Back in 2002, 2004, when UTOPIA was getting off the ground, they saw the benefit of our model.”

“They saw the vision and where the future was headed almost 20 years ago.”

Today, UTOPIA Fiber is deploying broadband infrastructure in 17 cities across Utah and southern Idaho. UTOPIA Fiber Executive Director Roger Timmerman said that the three remaining original cities will have their projects completed by the end of 2022.

UTOPIA’s model is entirely funded through subscriber revenue, at no cost to taxpayers. Based on UTOPIA’s recent surveys, the subscribers in question view the service as a worthy investment.

Annual customer feedback survey

Also, on Oct. 27, UTOPIA Fiber released the results of their annual customer feedback survey. Among other statistics, UTOPIA Fiber reported that the number of customers working from home had increased by more than 230 percent since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, while legislators around the country squabble over how to define broadband – whether it ought to be 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 20 Mbps upload, or 100 Mbps symmetrical, nearly half of UTOPIA’s customers purchased speeds over 1 Gigabits per second, which is 10 times faster than 100 Mbps.

Customers need faster speeds to address the myriad services that simply did not exist in the past, many believe. For example, 68 percent of customers are subscribed to a streaming service that did not exist three years ago, and the use of home security connected to the internet rose by 71 percent since 2018.

And 83 percent of consumers stated that they were glad they had invested in UTOPIA, 76 percent stated it had improved their quality of life, and 75 percent said their community is better because of UTOPIA.

In addition to high levels of customer satisfaction, UTOPIA also found that consumers were strongly in favor of net neutrality policies, with 92 percent of respondents indicating as much.

“A few years back we saw an influx of customers that came over to the UTOPIA system because that our providers are net neutral,” said McKinley. “I think that that speaks to people who want more privacy and control over their user experience. I think that is what we’re seeing at UTOPIA Fiber.”

Despite being generally favorable toward the practice up through the Obama Administration, net neutrality was struck down in the U.S. in 2017 by the Trump Administration’s FCC led by Ajit Pai. Though conservatives have historically portrayed net neutrality as an example of government overreach, McKinley argues that Utah is an example of why this issue should not be a partisan one.

“[This data] shows that people do not want to be beholden to big telcos who have control of their entire user experience. I think our survey proves more than anything that this is a bipartisan topic, and this is not a blue versus red discussion,” she said. “[Consumers] just want better.”

UTOPIA Fiber is a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast.

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