There’s a new fight brewing over how Utahns view high-speed internet access, driven by the transforming effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since November, the community-owned network grown in Utah’s backyard and known as UTOPIA has been pounded by a shadowy national TV and mailer campaign that denigrates it for being government-run and supposedly mired in debt.
Officials with UTOPIA Fiber — based in Murray and now the nation’s largest open-access municipal grid — announced plans this week to counter with a media blitz of their own, highlighting the 22-year-old consortium’s local roots and hearty backing from 21 Utah cities.
Its new “Chosen by YOUtah” media outreach also aims to publicize the internet provider’s high metrics on network reliability and satisfaction among a customer base now topping 62,000 in the Wasatch Front communities its fiber network serves with broadband.
UTOPIA’s leaders say they are confused about the recent attack campaign’s timing, coming almost 15 years into a dramatic business turnaround flowing from new management and a top-to-bottom restructuring of its finances in 2009.
“Really it’s strange,” said Roger Timmerman, UTOPIA’s executive director and CEO, “because from our perspective, despite all this garbage and misinformation, things at UTOPIA are really better than ever.”
‘Join the fight’
Along with producing a website, NoGovInternet.com, the $1 million anti-UTOPIA campaign has flooded some Salt Lake County homes with brochures and can be traced to a Washington, D.C., group called Domestic Policy Caucus, which appears to ally with conservative causes.
“Don’t let politicians mess with our internet,” the website says.
The bare-bones site offers free enterprise-centered criticisms of government broadband networks, making examples of others with rocky financial histories in Bristol, Va., and Traverse City, Mich., as well as in Provo, where a city-run grid called iProvo sputtered before being sold to Google for $1.
The issues-oriented group also assails UTOPIA for crippling debt incurred early in its history and describes the network as an ongoing drain on taxpayer dollars. “Join the fight,” it urges, channeling users to an online petition and suggesting they contact state legislators.
Representatives with the dark money group — which is not required to publicly disclose the identities of its donors — did not respond to an inquiry from The Salt Lake Tribune as to who is backing the campaign and its main claims.
Timmerman and others at UTOPIA say the campaign’s backers “don’t seem to care about the truth. They are targeting our potential growth with misinformation.”
A Utah-based spokesperson for the Domestic Policy Caucus-backed campaign — former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes — asserted that he, too, was unaware of who was paying for the national ad blitz.
Hughes added, though, that his involvement with NoGovInternet.com was part of “a Utah effort” and its themes resonated on behalf of the public as well as the interests of private-sector internet service providers who view UTOPIA as unfair competition. It’s not aimed, he said, at undoing what UTOPIA has built or its existing relationships with cities but rather at educating residents and elected leaders in cities that might consider joining the public grid.
“We just want to put out the warning that cities and governments getting into the business of internet is outside their lane,” Hughes said, “and it has a history of not working out well.”
Growth ‘coming on fast’
Demand for broadband remains transformed by the pandemic lockdowns and how Utahns adapted to working from home, remote learning and access to telemedicine. The trends continue to shape public perceptions on the need for reliable broadband while also lifting the financial stakes on who provides that access.
UTOPIA added a record 10,000 new subscribers last year, pushing it over 62,000 active subscribers, Timmerman said, making it the largest and fastest-growing municipal grid in the country, with fiber lines running in proximity to 200,000 homes and business.
“It took us a number of years to get to this point,” he said, “and now the growth is really coming on fast.”
West Valley City was among the 11 cities that founded UTOPIA in 2002 in hopes of filling a gap in high-speed access in their communities that wasn’t being met by private internet providers. Its former city attorney, Nicole Cottle, now works as general counsel for UTOPIA and said it’s been exciting to watch communities like West Valley “level up” with better broadband access.
“I happen to have a firsthand eyewitness account of how it helped our community prosper, especially during COVID,” Cottle said. “We saw the great benefits … and it’s important to remember, this is a community-driven effort and very unique across the country.”
She added that the lift to economic development from increased connectivity had been “huge.”
Officials with UTOPIA note that, like other municipal networks, it acts as a kind of wholesaler of internet infrastructure. That means it builds and maintains high-speed fiber-to-the-home networks in partnerships with participating cities and then leaves it to a list of 15 private internet service providers to deliver customer access and services. A portion of subscriber revenues then go to pay off city bonds issued to fund network construction.
Targeted over recent wins?
The municipal grid, with network centers in Murray and South Salt Lake, has been on a roll in recent months, including announcements it has completed network build-outs in Cedar Hills, Syracuse and Santa Clara as it continues to expand a roster of member cities.
In another high-profile win, the Bountiful City Council voted unanimously over the summer to join UTOPIA after years of study and debate — despite of a signature-gathering effort in that city of 45,000 residents to halt the proposal.
“Bountiful was kind of a watershed moment, because Bountiful is pretty conservative,” said Pete Ashdown, owner-operator of XMission, Utah’s oldest internet service provider and a retailer of services over UTOPIA’s fiber. Competitors to UTOPIA, he said, may now be looking to preempt other cities and townships from going the same way.
A national trade organization for municipal networks, the American Association of Public Broadband, suggested when Bountiful signed on, that large “incumbent” cable and internet providers such as Comcast and CenturyLink were targeting the city as part of a deceptive push, against what she called “community broadband freedom of choice.”
“Incumbents are running these campaigns,” group’s executive director, Gig Sohn, said, “even as they refuse to provide universal connectivity to those communities.”
With billions of dollars for broadband now being made available to states under the recent federal infrastructure spending, Sohn said, “there is a huge opportunity for cities and towns to decide for themselves what kind of broadband networks would best meet the needs of everyone in their communities, not just a wealthy few.”