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UTOPIA customers scarce but satisfied

Published December 2, 2012 12:58 am

Performance • Users say the network is fast and cheap, but they worry it may not survive.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Critics may question how UTOPIA has been financed and managed, but the high-speed fiber-optic network built by 11 Utah cities has few detractors in one respect: its performance.

Subscribers to the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency network say it offers the fastest Internet connectivity they have ever used.

"It's great,'' Eric Eide of Murray said. "It's very reliable. It's high-speed. Whenever I check, I get the speed that is advertised."

"It's pretty steady. I don't notice any tail-off in the afternoons or evenings. It's always the speed I pay for. We watch a lot of stuff on Netflix, and I don't experience any stuttering," Phil Windley of Lindon said.

UTOPIA, which began building its network in 2002, has been plagued by financial problems, the bankruptcy of third-party partners, and poor planning and management. Today, the network is struggling to stay afloat as it moves forward with new managers and a fresh approach to reaching customers.

Only 10,000 customers so far have subscribed to the service, but those who have think it is worth all the effort.

"I'm not particularly concerned about their financial problems as a taxpayer," said Windley, chief technology officer for a cloud-service company. "Frankly, I'm happy [to help build] the infrastructure. It's a 21st century version of roads. I don't mind paying more for the quality of service I've got."

Instead of using coaxial copper cable to the home like Comcast, now called Xfinity, or telephone lines (known as DSL) like CenturyLink, formerly Qwest, UTOPIA uses fiber-optic cable for its network. With light transmitting data through ultra-pure strands of glass, download and upload speeds can be up to 100 times faster than cable or DSL.

UTOPIA partners with several third-party Internet service providers, or ISPs, to bring its network to homes and businesses in cities where it's available. Pricing depends on the ISP but ranges from about $35 to $300 per month.

UTOPIA's primary advantage is that it can deliver much higher download and upload speeds for lower prices than competitors, according to those who use it. For $35 per month, for example, a UTOPIA customer through the ISP XMission can get up to 50 megabits per second of both download and upload speeds. By comparison, Comcast charges $73 per month for 30 megabits-per-second download speed (the upload speed also is slower). UTOPIA also offers up to 1 gigabit (1,024 megabits) per second of download speed for $300 per month.

The downside is that UTOPIA installation costs $2,750, which can be paid in full or spread out through a leasing program. Crews dig a trench to the home to install a line.

With a 50-megabit connection, you could download a 1 gigabyte file in about four minutes while an average Comcast connection (around 20 megabits per second) might take anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes.

"The speed is great, and I haven't had any problems with it," said John English of Orem, a project manager for Xerox. "It's a sign of a good service if I'm not really thinking about it. It just works."

Janicki Industries is a small Layton company that specializes in large-scale machining and manufacturing for aerospace parts. Engineers there exchange large CAD (computer-aided design) files with clients and with the company's main office in Washington. To get the fastest speeds possible, Janicki signed up with UTOPIA when it opened its Layton office two years ago.

"As far as accessing the Internet and local files … it's fantastic," said engineer Ryan Hollander, the company's information technology professional. "I can't think of a single day where it's been down or out of service for a period."

Now, with UTOPIA steeped in debt and questions about whether it can build out its network, the only concerns these users have about the broadband service is whether it will stay in business.

"I am worried that it will disappear," said Eide, who works in the School of Computing at the University of Utah. "It's terrible that UTOPIA has such a low subscriber base. When it was rolled out, I didn't understand why everybody just didn't immediately switch to it. I understand why people don't subscribe to it now."

vince@sltrib.com