The largest U.S. city to be fully connected to fiber is Chattanooga, Tenn.
The second biggest may surprise Utahns. It’s West Valley City.
Yes, in a matter of days, all 140,000 residents and all businesses are going to be hooked up to UTOPIA Fiber.
“All the promises that we originally made have been fulfilled. The system is built,” West Valley City Manager Wayne Pyle said. “Now we have this huge valuable asset to our residents in West Valley City, who now have access to 100 megabit at minimum and a gig if they want it.”
This means that West Valley City residents will have access — if they subscribe — to high-speed internet with a reliable connection. There are 16 providers, who partnered with UTOPIA, to choose from and rates depend on the selected service.
A full fiber optic system is rare, said Pyle. Most providers who advertise the service usually have partial coverage, sending data through fiber optic cables (filled with thin glass or plastic fibers) and then, after a certain point, the connection is completed with a wireless system.
The effort to install the system throughout the city started in 2004, when 11 cities formed the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency, most commonly known as UTOPIA, identifying a need for a better internet connection system.
Copper wires and wireless connection, Pyle said, “are just inherently not as capable as fiber optic lines.”
But the process really took off during the first part of the COVID-19 pandemic, when working from home became widespread and this project became critical.
The process to get to this point was a decadeslong roller-coaster ride, with revoked grants, lawsuits and almost going dark. But now, it’s almost ready to go and every West Valley City resident will have the choice to opt in to the service.
“The speed is nice, but it’s not the biggest thing,” Pyle said. “I would say the biggest thing is the cost and the reliability. The signal is not going to degrade; it’s not going to get choked down.”
How much it could cost
Monthly prices for residential service range from $34.95 to $40 for 250 megabits per second and 39.95 to $60 for 1 gigabit per second, depending on the provider, according to the agency’s website. There’s also an option of getting 10 Gbps for $150 to $250 a month.
Prices would remain stable through the years, Pyle said.
Discounts for businesses — from mom and pop shops to data centers — can amount to thousands of dollars, which represents an economic incentive for West Valley City commerce, Pyle said.
“It helps with the digital divide. We don’t build just the high-end areas or the areas that are profitable,” said Roger Timmerman, executive director of UTOPIA. “Low-income areas benefit and have the same services available to them as the high-end areas.”
Other Utah municipalities have access to the UTOPIA service as well. Some of them are fully built out, such as Morgan City, Woodland Hills, Midvale and Layton. Other cities that are still in the process of installing the fiber optic system include Murray, Orem, Clearfield, Syracuse and Cedar Hills.
As the years went by, and the pandemic restricted in-person services and events, 10 other municipalities joined the agency.
“These cities are positioned not just for today but to ensure that forever they will have competition in broadband,” Timmerman said about the choice of providers UTOPIA allows. “This isn’t just me replacing the monopoly they have today with a new monopoly.”
What the city still owes
The project is now almost ready in West Valley City, but the debt that the city has to finance it will continue. The city is paying around $4 million annually, and the debt will remain in the city’s budget for about 20 years more.
Service and operation are going to be covered by UTOPIA, so that debt is not expected to increase.
And, as money is coming UTOPIA’s way, the agency is starting to push money back to the cities, Pyle said, to reduce that amount of debt that they have to pay annually.
After forming the Utah Infrastructure Agency in 2010 to build out the fiber optic network, UTOPIA provided an operation center, staff and expertise. A partnership with provider XMission and collaborations with area businesses then accelerated the process of building the network in the past couple of years.
“From (around) 2012 up to now, we’ve been on this increasing curve of success, customer building,” Pyle said. “Our revenues are better than they’ve ever been. Our sales have increased at an accelerating rate.”
This high-speed access may have been slow in coming, but West Valley City is now more connected, providing the same internet opportunities to all corners of the city.
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.