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UTOPIA Fiber Goes to Court in Utah Over American Fork’s Build Permit Refusals

Fiber builder says it has been denied permits that have harmed it and its customers, despite an existing city agreement.

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Photo of Twin Peaks in American Fork, Utah, by Bryant Olsen used with permission

October 13, 2021 – UTOPIA Fiber filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the city of American Fork in Utah for breach of contract after the city allegedly denied build permits to the fiber builder despite there being an existing contract between the two parties.

The fiber provider, which runs an open network on which private telecoms rent space on to provide services, alleges the city had approved some permits that only allowed it to construct backbone transport lines through the city connecting other cities, but denied it key permits that would have allowed it to extend services to UTOPIA Fiber customers inside the city. Those services include connections to American Fork’s public schools.

In July 2020, the city allegedly terminated the 2018 rights-of-way agreement with no explanation, the lawsuit claims. It also alleges that the city specifically discriminated against UTOPIA Fiber by adding additional scrutiny to its permit requests when it believed no such scrutiny existed for other providers.

Broadband Breakfast attempted to make contact with the city, but a phone call was not answered and a voicemail message was not returned by the time of publication.

“American Fork’s refusal to approve permit requests by or for UTOPIA for service laterals for customers within American Fork has harmed UTOPIA, its customers, and the private ISPs who wish to offer services within American Fork using UTOPIA’s Network,” the lawsuit said. “In some cases, UTOPIA has been forced to buy capacity from other network providers that are allowed to install infrastructure in American Fork, so that UTOPIA can fulfill existing contracts with its customers.

“In other cases, UTOPIA has been forced to cancel existing customer orders for connections within American Fork and has lost significant revenues as a result,” the suit added. “UTOPIA has also recently been forced to cancel or reject over a dozen additional customer orders because UTOPIA is unable, due to American Fork’s conduct, to obtain the permits needed to fulfill those orders, and again lost significant revenues as a result.”

In a press release, UTOPIA’s executive director Roger Timmerman said the lawsuit was a “last resort and not an easy decision to make.

“It is our hope that with judicial review, American Fork City will reverse its policies, work within the boundaries of the law, and ultimately, act in the best interest of the people and businesses in American Fork City by allowing them access to the increased options UTOPIA Fiber provides,” Timmerman added.

UTOPIA Fiber is asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah to force the city to pay the company damages sustained as a result of the alleged actions, to find the city violated the law with respect to its actions, and to force the city to cease the alleged “discriminatory and preferential actions” against the company.

UTOPIA Fiber, a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast, has designed, built, and operated more than $330 million worth of fiber projects in the state since 2009.

Assistant Editor Ahmad Hathout has spent the last half-decade reporting on the Canadian telecommunications and media industries for leading publications. He started the scoop-driven news site downup.io to make Canadian telecom news more accessible and digestible. Follow him on Twitter @ackmet

Expert Opinion

Mike Harris: Investing in Open Access Fiber Optics is Investing in the Future

Chattanooga’s municipal broadband network has delivered $2.7 billion in social and economic benefits during its first decade.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Mike Harris, the co-founder of SiFi Networks.

In the United States, most Internet Service Providers are privately owned companies who have established copper network infrastructure exclusively for their own use, forcing customers into often unreliable, unsustainable internet package deals. But in 2010, the small city of Chattanooga, Tennessee invested in an early publicly owned fiber optic network.

As the co-founder of open-access telecom company SiFi Networks, I believe that investments in similar open-access infrastructure will help bridge community divides and futureproof a city’s economic and social prosperity.

According to a study by Bento Lobo, department head of finance and economics at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga’s municipal broadband has delivered over $2.69 billion worth of social and economic benefits during its first decade. With a population of just 185,000, imagine the potential savings for a city the size of New York.

So, how did Chattanooga achieve this and what were the city’s motivations?

Motives behind the madness

In 1969, Chattanooga was dubbed America’s dirtiest city. A post-industrial wasteland, it entered the late twentieth century with a stagnant economy, declining population and high levels of unemployment following the closure of its large manufacturing factories. It’s not surprising that decades later publicly owned utility company, EPB, chose to invest in its residents’ future.

EPB began replacing the underground copper wiring — originally established to exclusively handle telephone calls — with fiber optic cables feeding connectivity to the entire community. Fiber optic networks are vastly superior to copper because they can transport data using photons travelling at the speed of light. Previous infrastructure uses electrons capable of less than one per cent of that speed.

Where before Chattanooga was perceived as an underdeveloped, low-income area, suddenly businesses were moving in, employment was growing, and more adolescents were graduating from high school. Is it about time for other cities to follow suit?

Why other cities should follow suit

Internet connectivity is a human right much like water, electricity and gas utilities. Yet 21 million U.S. citizens are still living without reliable broadband according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Research also shows that 40 percent of schools and 60 percent of healthcare facilities outside metropolitan regions lack internet download speeds of at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps. This is the acceptable speed defining a reliable broadband connection.

As the Chattanooga model demonstrates, the solution is the establishment of fiber optic infrastructure. With fiber networks, EPB offers residents and businesses gigabit speeds of up to 1,000 Mbps, or 1 Gigabit per second. In hindsight, with this capacity Hamilton County was well equipped to deal with the 75 percent increase in total volume of bandwidth being used per day during the pandemic, with residents being forced to work and educate from their homes.

These gigabit speeds also allow for a high degree of network responsiveness necessary for establishing a smart grid system. Most US cities use standard grid systems, which rely on consumers informing a service when they have a power outage or system failure.

Smart grids establish a two-way communication network using digital devices and automation so that service providers are notified immediately when problems occur. EPB’s Hamilton County smart grid, for example, can quickly re-route power around storm damage decreasing outages by 40 per cent in minutes, according to Lobo’s study. He estimates Chattanooga’s consumers will save $20.6 million per annum simply from avoiding spoilage and loss of productivity due to power outages.

Saving money, saving livelihoods

EPB has more than proven that fiber networks are a socioeconomic investment benefitting everyone, not just those lucky enough to live in a fiber area. Better, faster connectivity will enable businesses in all neighbourhoods to thrive, creating job opportunities. During the ‘gig decade’ (2011-2020), EPB’s fiber network directly supported the creation or retention of approximately 9,500 jobs in Hamilton County, luring the migration of global corporations like Volkswagen. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has reflected this, stating Hamilton County’s unemployment rate being 4.7 percent as of November 2020, compared to the U.S. overall percentage of 6.7.

Chattanooga at night

The social benefits don’t stop here. A study by South Australia’s premier, Jay Weatherill, correlated gigabit networks with improved support for police and fire communications, wastewater management, traffic control and medical diagnostics. These are all features of SiFi Networks’ FiberCity and if Chattanooga has demonstrated anything, it is that fiber networks improve residents’ quality of living above all else.

FiberCity — the next step?

Chattanooga has demonstrated the importance of staying connected. To this end, becoming a SiFi Networks FiberCity could be the next step for cities across the US.

Privately financed networks, like SiFi Networks’, are often the best option to guarantee necessary funding for construction, maintenance and expansion of fiber infrastructure. Municipalities wouldn’t have to rely on taxpayer’s dollars, which can instead be diverted to healthcare, education and other social entities. During a period of continuous technological evolution, FiberCities have one simple mission: to combine advantages of Chattanooga’s gigabit speeds with futureproofed smart city services across the U.S.

Mike Harris is a successful entrepreneur and technologist, having previously founded Total Network Solutions Ltd in 1989, which he later sold to UK telecoms giant British Telecom in 2005. He subsequently co-founded SiFi Networks and is a current investor in the company. He is also the chairman and owner of the New Saints Football Club in Wales, UK. 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

SiFi Networks Announces $2 Billion Plan to Put 30 Cities On Their Network

SiFi Networks uses private capital, at no cost to taxpayers, to fund its open access model.

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SiFi Networks CEO Ben Bawtree-Jobson at the Tuesday press conference

HOUSTON, September 30, 2021 – SiFi Networks has announced a plan to commit $2 billion, sourced from private investors, to build open-access fiber networks in cities across America, the company said at an in person and virtual press conference at the Broadband Community Summit here on Tuesday.

SiFi has plans to begin developing fiber networks in 30 cities by the end of 2022 and to pass over 40,000 homes per month by early 2023.

Ben Bawtree-Jobson, CEO of SiFi Networks, said that the company is working with more than 100 cities and has plans to expand FiberCity Aid, their program which decreases the network costs for ISPs providing service to low-income residents, in an effort to close the digital divide.

The company said that its open-access model gives “communities a much-needed choice against existing cable monopolies and duopolies whose networks have fallen far behind new technologies and skyrocketing consumer demand.” Open access networks allow multiple telecoms to use the same infrastructure to provide services.

Bawtree-Jobson, alluding to existing copper and cable networks being at or near capacity, warned that, “communities need to make policy decisions pertaining to broadband in the next 24 months. Prioritizing long-term competition should be first and foremost in the minds of lawmakers so their cities and towns are no longer hamstrung by large monopolies.”

Additionally, on Wednesday SiFi Networks and East Hartford Mayor Marcia Leclerc announced that East Hartford, Connecticut, is receiving a $40 million all-fiber internet network. This will be both the first open access and first all-fiber network in the state of Connecticut, the company said.

“We’re able to partner with communities to build FiberCities on an Open Access network, using private capital, at no cost to taxpayers. It’s a win for consumers, it’s a win for business, and it’s a win for government,” said Bawtree-Jobson.

Founded in 2012, SiFi Networks’ business plan is to privately fund, build and operate citywide, open access, 100 percent fiber networks. Their networks are made available to internet service providers, providing them with the ability to lease space on SiFi’s network and enter a market quickly and efficiently. Service providers would then be expected to concentrate on customer service and support.

SiFi is currently developing or operating in more than 40 cities across the United States, covering over 1.5 million homes and businesses. SiFi has stated that ISPs of all sizes are welcome to partner with their network to provide thousands of Americans with fiber internet. The APG Group recently acquired 16.7 percent of SiFi Networks while also investing 500 million dollars for joint ventures into SiFi’s open access model.

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Open Access

Open Access Model Can Leverage Historic Funding to Drive Broadband Expansion

Even though the models are not yet mainstream, some experts praise them for their unique advantages.

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From left to right: Photo of Christopher Mitchell, Heather Gold, Jeff Boozer, Kim McKinley

HOUSTON, September 30, 2021 — The open access model is picking up steam, and historic investments coming down the pike could make this an opportunity for the model to flourish, according to experts at the Broadband Communities Summit on Wednesday.

“I am trying to figure out if there is increased interest in open access or if it is more viable now [due to modern technology],” said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an advocate for community broadband. Open access networks allow multiple internet service provider to rise on the same infrastructure, thus in theory increasing competition and driving down prices.

Mitchell said that while UTOPIA, a prominent fiber builder that uses an open access model, was once considered to be an error that advocates had to explain away, they have turned themselves around, and are now considered to be one of the leading examples of open access done right for the entire country.

UTOPIA chief marketing officer Kimberley McKinley has been with the company for more than ten years. During that time, UTOPIA has transformed from a blight on the record of the open access model, to a “leading light,” in the words of Mitchell. When explaining open access, McKinley likens it to an airport—a facility built by a municipal body but primarily utilized by private entities.

The model comes with several inherent benefits over conventional approaches, the conference heard. “When a community owns [the infrastructure] they’re going to build it to the specs they need,” McKinley explained. “Private [carriers] will employ cost-cutting methods wherever they can.”

Mitchell was quick to point out that speed is not the only important aspect of the open access model, though it is often one of the most prominent features. Jeff Boozer of ETI Software Solutions said that open access’s most important feature is that it allows service providers to specialize their service. Rather than investing their capital in the infrastructure to serve a community, they can invest in other solutions to better serve their communities.

The community connection

McKinley also noted that open access keeps money local and allows communities to support regional ISPs and businesses rather than national, corporate behemoths.

For the model to continue to find success, Mitchell stated that efforts need to start with solid anchor ISPs and other organizations municipalities can trust, because if the ISP provides poor service, the whole model will suffer.

Though the panel unanimously agreed that there should never be a one-size-fits-all approach, they were all very supportive of expanding open access efforts, “In time, if we can demonstrate the benefits of open access, [more regions] will adopt it,” Mitchell said, “Once we hit 500,000-1,000,000 homes—then we’ll start to see serious innovation.”

With the infrastructure bill expected to see a vote Thursday, with billions in funding going to the states, experts at this year’s Digital Infrastructure Investment conference said the money could be the policy leverage needed to push the open access concept.

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