Roger Timmerman: Open access municipal networks are an answer to the nation’s broadband problem

But Big Cable won’t take the Biden plan lying down.

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.

Now that Washington’s about to pass the infrastructure bill (“The American Jobs Plan”), it is critical that the truth about open access municipal broadband networks be told: They work; they are successful; they spur competition; they are closing the digital divide.

They also are an irritant to big cable and its allies, whose henchmen have been busy at work in a well-financed lobbying campaign, trying to derail the process to ensure that a good portion of the potential $65 billion-plus for broadband reverts to them.

In a commentary carried by Fox News on June 13, Rep. John Curtis, from Utah’s 3rd Congressional District, claimed that municipal networks “don’t work,” are ineffective ways to extend broadband access, and “not capable of the investment risk.” Worse, he said that municipal networks have failed in Utah.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The inconvenient truth that Curtis misses is that municipal fiber is hugely successful in Utah, even in his own district. In fact, Utah, one of the most politically conservative states in the nation, has more municipal broadband networks than elsewhere in the U.S. And we at UTOPIA Fiber, a municipal network owned by 11 cities, now provide fiber-to-the-home services in 17 cities and business services in 50, connecting communities to residential speeds of up to 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps), and 100 Gbps for business, both the fastest speeds currently offered in the United States.

Though UTOPIA Fiber is publicly owned, it creates private sector competition. UTOPIA Fiber is open-access, building and operating fiber infrastructure where 15 private-sector internet service providers can compete with each other for customers. Municipal broadband and the competition fostered with the open access model result in better pricing, access, and service. Since 2009, UTOPIA Fiber has designed, built and operated nearly $300 million in successful fiber projects, completely paid for through subscriber revenue, without costing taxpayers a dime.

What Curtis claims to be a success, that of getting Google Fiber in Provo, was only possible as a result of the city’s initial investment in fiber. Provo’s infrastructure, built by the city in 2004, is still the same infrastructure in use by Google Fiber.

Big cable is claiming that federal dollars shouldn’t go to those areas that already have networks, which have been “functioning incredibly well.” The fact is, the pandemic laid bare unsustainable gaps in our nation’s digital infrastructure and the urgent need for better internet connectivity. Today, it’s estimated that roughly 30% of American households lack access to basic broadband connectivity for working, learning, gaming, or streaming. That’s nearly a third of the nation and it’s disproportionately impacting rural areas.

The half a dozen or so large telecom companies that provide internet service to most homes and businesses in the U.S. today have for years “cherry-picked” neighborhoods to maximize their profits. Although they’re returning record dividends to investors, they’ve also been helping themselves to billions from the feds over the years. And what does the taxpayer get in return? The U.S. still lags behind other countries in Europe and Asia in broadband deployment. Talk about a “risky” investment of taxpayer dollars! This has led to market failure as most localities in the U.S. are served by monopolies or duopolies.

Where Curtis is right is when he says that “The White House and Congress should let states and local governments decide.” Washington could provide dollars to state and local governments to enable them to decide how best to use those resources to meet the needs of their citizens. In my view, the best way to do this is through investment in open-access municipal broadband networks that stimulate competition. The only losers will be big cable monopolies/duopolies that will have to deal with new competitive options, which is exactly what our communities need.

Roger Timmerman, Executive Director/CEO of UTOPIA Fiber

Roger Timmerman has been executive director/CEO of the Utah Telecom Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA) Fiber since 2016. Prior to that, he was vice president of engineering at Vivint Internet, CTO/deputy director of UTOPIA and network engineer at iProvo Fiber. He holds a masters of science in information technology degree from Brigham Young University.