Roger Timmerman: COVID-19 reveals a gap in our online infrastructure

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune A giant roll of orange conduit is at the ready as crews for Utopia, far left, use a drill to make a path for the conduit in Centerville, Utah Monday, August 22, 2011. The conduit will house fiber optic cables.

The COVID-19 health emergency has exposed gaps not only in our health care system, but in our digital infrastructure as well. Confined at home, workers and students are relying on their home internet to connect them to their jobs and schools.

But home internet connections are showing their age. Built originally for emailing and web surfing, the technology lacks the bandwidth, or capacity, to handle the data demand of video conferencing and streaming when entire families and neighborhoods are simultaneously online.

It’s a huge problem. At a time when we literally risk our lives and the lives of others if we leave home, the traffic jam on the internet makes it difficult to participate. Without high-speed internet bandwidth, sequestered families have to endure frozen video images, long waits for pages to load and unstable connections when they need to conduct business, attend class virtually and interactively, or use telemedicine to consult a physician.

What’s puzzling is that we have the technology today to alleviate this digital bottleneck. Fiber optic cables transmit internet data at the speed of light and have almost infinite capacity to handle internet traffic.

Unfortunately, most residences in Utah connect to the internet through either the ’70s-era copper DSL wiring used for telephone lines or ’90s-era coax lines used for cable television. The large telecom companies have begun installing fiber, but mostly to power 5G mobile phones in densely populated, upscale areas. In other words, they’ve “cherry-picked” neighborhoods to maximize their profits.

This has created a “digital divide,” leaving rural and less-affluent communities without access to the kind of bandwidth needed to match today’s education, health, economic, and entertainment demands.

If the telecoms won’t bring fiber to every home, then we’ll have to do it ourselves. The good news is that we can. Public agencies such as UTOPIA Fiber have built fiber-to-the-home infrastructure in 14 cities (urban, suburban, and rural), with many more in the pipeline. (UTOPIA Fiber also connects businesses in 50 cities.)

Unlike the telecoms, UTOPIA Fiber uses an open access model in which it builds, owns and manages the fiber optic infrastructure, then leases the lines to private internet service providers — many of whom are local — which provide internet, voice, video and other services. Open access creates competition, which means that customers on UTOPIA Fiber’s network can choose their content to be delivered from XMission, Veracity Networks, Beehive Broadband or any of eight other local ISPs, while enjoying the fastest internet speed in the country.

Public agencies can play a big role in building fiber infrastructure. They have the unique ability to rapidly build public infrastructure that private-sector providers can compete on, just like airports do. For example, UTOPIA Fiber secures the financing, builds the infrastructure, signs up subscribers and maintains the system. Municipalities only need to assume a low-level of risk on the financing until the project is completely paid for. Every UTOPIA Fiber project since 2009 is being paid for by subscriber revenues with no cost or subsidy from those municipalities. The result is that residents and businesses can get the fastest internet service in the country from their choice of 11 service providers.

In time, we will recover from the COVID-19 health emergency, but we won’t return to business as usual. Once companies see that employees can be productive working from home; once health systems embrace telemedicine to provide essential health services to rural and homebound patients; and once we see the use of remote technologies significantly reduces traffic congestion and air pollution, there’s no turning back.

If anything good could come out of these uncertain times, it may be this wake-up call. Fiber-broadband is essential infrastructure. Let’s get it now.

Roger Timmerman

Roger Timmerman is executive director/CEO of UTOPIA Fiber.