March 10, 2021

Utopia Fiber: America’s Largest Open Access Network

The following podcast discusses open access networks and their adoption in the United States.

Craig Corbin:

Welcome to the Broadband Bunch, a podcast about broadband and how it impacts all of us. The Broadband Bunch, as always, sponsored by ETI Software.

Craig Corbin:

Back in 2004, the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency, or UTOPIA, a group of eleven Utah cities began a quest to provide blazingly fast internet speeds along with telephone and television services by building, deploying, and operating a fiber to the home network to every business and household within their communities. Fast forward to the global pandemic year of 2020, and the already consistent growth in residential sign-ups jumped by more than 50%; the biggest one-year increase in the consortium’s history.

Ten Gigabit Service On A Publicly Owned Network

Craig Corbin:

Now, UTOPIA fibers 15 service areas, represent nearly a third of all communities in the United States that can enjoy 10-gigabit service via a publicly owned network, a mark that is 100 times faster than the national average of eight megabits per second. It is always a pleasure to welcome our guests today, Chief Marketing Officer for UTOPIA, Kim McKinley, and Executive Director of UTOPIA, Roger Timmerman. Kim, Roger, welcome to the Broadband Bunch.

Craig Corbin:

It seems as though every time I check my Twitter feed, you guys are adding another city, more expansion to the network. It is amazing what the last 12, 18 months have brought for UTOPIA. You look at the numbers and it is staggering growth.

Roger Timmerman:

It surprises us too, except that we’re all losing our minds with how busy we are. We’ve been at this thing for a long time and I think a lot of people are familiar with UTOPIA because we’ve been in this game for a while, like you said, since 2004. You look at the numbers and we put on a lot of customers this last year; this spike in demand related to COVID, but also not related to COVID. We were spiking before that, but you put COVID into the mix and it really pushed us up into the numbers we had no idea we could ever be hitting, and people were just flooding us with requests. From our perspective, it was an emergency situation. We had communities that in the past maybe thought, “Well, UTOPIA is a great service.”

Fiber Broadband to the Home

Roger Timmerman:

We had good take rates, but suddenly, we were pushed into our homes for work, for school, for medicine and this became a critical service like we’ve never seen before. The result of that is people were desperately needing better broadband. So when people were calling us, it wasn’t just, “Well, I need to save some money,” or, “Maybe I need a little bit more speed.” It was, “Suddenly, my entire household is trying to function from home and the service we have is inadequate and we are suffering. We are struggling. We’re trying to get these sessions to work and we’re buffering.” So it became an emergency situation for a lot of communities that needed to function in this difficult time. From our perspective, it wasn’t just, “Hey, let’s get more customers.” It was an emergency situation to get people connected and to meet that need so that they could function and not be at a disadvantage having to do everything remotely.

Telecommuting Through High-Speed Fiber Network

Craig Corbin:

UTOPIA was able to embrace and handle. But back to the point that you just made, Roger, and Kim, from your perspective, I know that this is something that you and your team have been preaching for years, and that is the benefits of telecommuting.

Kim McKinley:

We live in Utah and everybody thinks that the mountains and we’re so healthy here, we have great air. But in actuality, in the winter, Utah had some of the worst air quality in the nation. So we want to facilitate improving the air quality by letting people work from home. Our traffic is becoming increasingly bad. As I say, the masses are leaving California and moving to Utah because every day, I see a new person move into my neighborhood who’s not from here. So we want to help Utah continue to grow but grow in a way that makes the most sense.

Kim McKinley:

Having people be able to telecommute has been really beneficial to not only people’s home lives but Utah in general. What I like to say too, is we’ve been preaching telecommunications here at the UTOPIA for years, but we would always use to come into work every day. We’re practicing what we preach as well. I’m at home. I’m sure Roger is at home as well this morning. It’s been a fun time to really look at what we’ve been preaching for so long come to actuality.

Open Access Network Overview

Craig Corbin:

That’s really the new norm for a huge percentage of the workforce. Roger, when we talk about UTOPIA overall, there may be some listening to a podcast that might not be familiar with the open access approach that’s utilized there. Give us an overview for those that might not be familiar.

Roger Timmerman:

From a public perspective, we see kind of two approaches to broadband. One of those is to throw money to incumbents to take incremental improvement, and that doesn’t work very well, to be honest. What we see is program after program, that attempts to improve and provide good broadband and there are incremental benefits there. I’m not saying that they’re not completely ineffective, but another approach that cities have taken is to get involved. The cities struggle with that because they say, “Well, what if we build our own fiber networks? We don’t really want to compete with private companies. We may not be as innovative as them, or we may want things they offer that we can’t do from a city perspective,” and so there was this idea of doing open access.

Open Access Infrastructure

Roger Timmerman:

It’s been done very commonly in Europe, but it’s pretty rare in the United States, and we’re the largest one. But the idea is that the cities would put in the fiber infrastructure and then just let the private companies come in and use that fiber. It bifurcates the service from the infrastructure. The benefit of that is that we don’t compete with the private sector. We enable the private sector. So from a before and after perspective looking at our cities, we started with maybe the cable company and the telephone company. We have the duopoly that we have in most of the country. When we come in with municipal fiber that’s an open access model, we don’t go from two options to three. We go from two options to 17 options. Add 14 or 15 service providers that participate on the UTOPIA fiber network and we dramatically increase the options and competition and innovation out there.

Multiple ISP Providers

Roger Timmerman:

So it’s a really nice mix that works politically because cities don’t necessarily want to compete with the private companies, but we like to facilitate them. We like free markets and competition, and the capital costs of fiber generally limit or make it very prohibitive for a new entrance into that space. Of course, anybody comes into a market, you see the incumbents start actually providing better service and competing and lowering pricing and things like that.

Open Access Analogies

Roger Timmerman:

We’ve been fortunate to stick with this long enough that we’ve been successful financially, at least in the recent years, last 10 years or so. It’s been very financially successful. Yeah, it works really well. Cities on the pipes and different companies provide the water in those pipes. Another analogy would be an airport, like where a city would put in an airport, let different airlines come in and use that and compete. Cities also put in roads and we let anybody come in and use their own cars, and they may be businesses or residents and whatever using that public infrastructure. That’s the way we treat fiber. We put the fiber in, let anybody who wants to use it, use it. In some cases, they might be a competitor of ours or at least they think that we’re a competitor. We’re like, “Well, we don’t really see that we have competitors.” We put the fiber out there and anybody that would benefit from that, whether it’s a wireless provider, a mobile provider, governmental, religious institutions, anybody who wants that for their purposes can come in and use that. But the most common is homes and businesses for internet service.

Craig Corbin:

Would it be a correct assumption that this type of competition actually increases customer satisfaction overall? Am I correct?

Open Access Network Competition

Kim McKinley:

When you have 14 different companies who are competing for one customer, you increase the customer experience exponentially because those ISPs are aware that they can call, that customer can call in or call into the ISP and switch to another ISP that same day. They have more at stake than they ever have. When you go into these communities with just a monopoly, you see that the customer experience isn’t good because the consumers don’t have any other choice. We have 14 providers competing on our network, but you have a couple of other providers who are also in these areas. There are 16 providers competing. Everybody is top-notch.

Kim McKinley:

In the UTOPIA communities, you see the incumbents lower their prices to try to even compete. They come out with better customer service in some of these areas. When competition just drives everything better for the consumer, and that is what we preach at UTOPIA. We really want the customer to be at the forefront of everything that we do to make sure their experience is good. We’ve wanted to be a disruption to change this industry for the better and not just have some of the lowest satisfaction ratings in the country.

Craig Corbin:

We referenced the record-breaking numbers from 2020 and they’re amazing. Roger, I think was 1.7 million feet of new underground conduit installed, 1.4 million feet of fiber that was placed, and then better than 20000 homes able to connect. Those are staggering jumps.

Last Mile Fiber

Roger Timmerman:

Historically, I mentioned we’ve been at this for a while, started in 2004. You can say, “Well, all those years from 2004 to 2019, we built out networks in various cities and got just over 100,000 addresses past where there’s fiber available to them, and just in this last year, to increase that by about 25000.” About 20000 of those were homes, but there’s a lot of construction, right? When you referenced the footages, 1.7 million feet of conduit is a lot of conduit and that may not be so much if you’re going long haul fiber. Those are numbers that a lot of companies may be doing, but this is 1.7 million feet of conduit and fiber put in the ground in neighborhoods. This isn’t people’s front yards. This is last mile fiber and conduit, and that is a massive amount of construction.

Open Access Network Private-Public Partnership

Roger Timmerman:

We’re very proud of those numbers and the amount of work that’s gone on. We’ll probably exceed that this year. We are very, very active and have more cities than ever seeking out solutions. They’ve come to realize this is not going to be a problem that just solves itself, that these cities probably need to take matters into their own hands in a way that’s non-competitive. It goes back to that open access model. This is a pretty good fit, both for the private sector and the public sector. It’s a good partnership. So we’re ramping up still despite having a year that was incredibly busy for us.

Craig Corbin:

A part of that excitement, Kim, is news that a number of the member cities have been able to achieve their revenue marks well ahead of what the anticipated schedule was. I think Morgan City, a full year ahead of schedule. Payson City, the better part of a year ahead of schedule. Talk about how that also provides positive momentum for the organization.

Kim McKinley:

What is really exciting is it built momentum for cities who are looking to do this, saying that they can build a project at very virtually no cost to the residents of that city. So when other cities in Utah and around the country are seeing what we’re doing and saying that Morgan City came on last year. Their first customer was connected in January of last year and they hit the revenue mark, I think, by March of last year and saying, “Well, we did it,” and there’s no cost to the taxpayers, I think that is huge momentum for other cities who are looking to get into this versus other solutions that are out there that cost the taxpayers a mighty dollar.

Fiber Broadband Infrastructure Benefits

Roger Timmerman:

“Hey, this is something that would be free to the city,” because if we really looked at this in the context of other things that cities do, like building parks and rec centers and things like that, I think having a fiber infrastructure in place is worth every dollar. What I mean is that you go to a city and say, “Hey, this might be a $40 million project to build this thing out,” the result of that is that the residents probably going to save $20 to $30 a month in services, but they’re going to get a better service as well. They’re also going to support city services, smart city applications, all these amazing benefits, increased property values. There’s a lot of studies out there that talk about the benefits of a fiber network.

Roger Timmerman:

If ultimately, that project were to be paid for by the cities and the taxpayers of that city, it would be worth it. It is one of the very best benefits that can come to a community and is worth that sort of investment. If a project like that needs partial subsidy and could mostly be paid for even partially paid for by the subscriptions of the customers, well, then it becomes kind of a no-brainer. Then we go in there and say, “Well, not only that, but we have these many examples of where they completely pay for themselves from the voluntary subscriptions at no cost to the taxpayer.” Cities hear that and they say, “Well, that’s not realistic,” but we’ve been able to deliver on that many times.

Roger Timmerman:

The demand for this sort of service has changed dramatically over time and we’ve been able to demonstrate that over and over. We’re kind of a 10 for 10. That’s kind of the way we look at it. Since 2009, we’ve done over $230 million of these fiber projects in different cities and all of them are being paid for just from voluntary subscriptions with no cost falling back to those cities. So as more and more cities are successful, more and more cities are looking at that saying, “How do we do that? That’s amazing,” and that’s what’s really driving up a lot of, not the consumer demand, but the city demands, cities coming to us saying, “This looks like a great plan and we want to participate.”

Fiber Network Backbone

Roger Timmerman:

A lot of that’s possible because it’s incremental to what we’re already doing. We’ve made, before that, a $200 million investment that’s been good. There was the original phase of UTOPIA, which was critical and putting in a backbone throughout Utah and establishing a lot of the systems, software, people, and facilities. A lot of these new projects benefit because they’re just incremental to what has been done previously. Then we did a partnership with Idaho Falls, and I don’t know how familiar you are with that, but we were still able to leverage a lot of our existing resources.

Roger Timmerman:

Even though it didn’t include any existing fiber in that market up in Idaho, it was kind of an island to us, it’s an independent system, but we were able to go in there and utilize our people and our software and our systems and processes and design that system and operate that for them, and they were able to avoid the startup costs and the risks and a lot of the costs of vendor margins and things like that because they were able to kind of come in under what we were already doing and had already negotiated. It was just really, from our perspective, a copy-paste job from what we were already doing in other cities and it saved them a significant amount of money and risk. It’s been a great partnership. From our perspective, Idaho Falls might as well be in Florida or New York or somewhere else. It doesn’t matter geographically where those partnerships might be, but UTOPIA is a consortium of cities and we’re excited to help where we can with additional cities that might be interested in doing this sort of model.

Open Access Municipalities

Craig Corbin:

When you look at, as you referenced being 10 for 10, Kim, obviously, and in talking with additional municipalities who might have an interest, part of this is making sure that there’s an understanding that it’s not just a short-term benefit, but long-term survival from an economic standpoint for many municipalities to embrace this type of approach. Talk about that, if you would.

Kim McKinley:

This is not just for people watching YouTube. This is not for people having faster Facebook. We’re trying to change communities from an economic development standpoint too, like I mentioned, air quality and making everybody’s life better with connectivity, even from smart city applications that we deploy throughout our network. Our network spans 200 miles plus in Utah along the Wasatch front and even some on the Wasatch back. We’re deploying all kinds of smart city sensors and we’re helping economic development.

Open Access Broadband and Connectivity

Kim McKinley:

Roger and I were actually at a chamber of commerce meeting yesterday in a small Utah rural area, and they were talking about the need for broadband and connectivity and how getting more broadband, that it would help economic development because in this little area, they can’t support a tax base without bringing more businesses to the area and they can’t, with some of the current incumbents in the area who were providing one MB service for a business, That’s not sustainable for business growth in an area, one MB. I felt like I was back in 1995 when they were talking those speeds.

Roger Timmerman:

They had a frustration that I thought was interesting in the sense that we have built Morgan City, and so inside the city limits, you have 10 gigabits available anywhere, anywhere in that entire city. As soon as you leave that city, the rest of the county has what was there without UTOPIA fiber, which was those one MB and five MB at most services, and it’s a dramatic difference in the quality of life and economic opportunity for those people in unincorporated county areas. We were up there trying to figure out, “Well, let’s get this thing expanded out to the county areas,” but it just showcases how big of a difference that is for the haves and have nots when it comes to broadband. We really, although, most of our builds have been in cities, we’re very interested in continuing to expand that out into more and more rural areas because there’s obviously a huge demand out there for that.

Explosive Growth Open Access Networks

Craig Corbin:

Roger, you mentioned earlier, the explosive growth that continues with regard to the network. I would assume that with multiple projects going on, you’ve had to embrace parallel project construction. Talk about that if you would.

Roger Timmerman:

We get some cities where we overwhelm them a little bit from a construction perspective. I share those numbers with you. That’s a lot of construction and construction is impactful. They get complaints and we’d dig a lot of holes and we move a lot of dirt and we go fix them. We take a lot of pride in the restoration work that happens. Also, with few exceptions, there are some aerial areas, but most of our stuff is underground. Even our boxes, all of our splice enclosures and things, we put them all in underground vaults as opposed to the pedestals and boxes and things that you see from the telephone and cable companies.

Roger Timmerman:

Our installation’s actually really clean when we’re done, but man, when what’s going in, it’s a mess. Right? The cities struggle to keep up with inspections and permitting and things like that, and really, the only way we’ve been able to do as much as we have is by doing a lot in parallel. We have active construction right now going on in I don’t know how many cities, but Murray, Orem, Midvale, Clearfield, probably a couple of other, Payson, just lots of different projects. Each one of those cities has multiple areas being done in different parts of the city at the same time. That’s really, even that point, I think some of these cities are kind of crying uncle a little bit like, “Whoa, you’re overwhelming us a little bit with all these permits and construction and all that,” but they work closely with us and when we’re done, they’re pretty happy with it.

Roger Timmerman:

Every one of these cities becomes a reference for the next city, someone to help us be an advocate for that.

Kim McKinley:

Roger, I think to put it into perspective how fast we’re growing, I know our conduit crews have eight crews out doing just drop conduit today alone, and it’s snowing out here. It’s just a lot of construction. If you’re talking eight crews and they’re doing 10 drops a piece, we’re building at an astronomical rate.

Residential Fiber Installation

Craig Corbin:

That obviously, comes hand in hand with the phenomenal growth that UTOPIA has experienced in the last 12, 18 months. I’m sure that sleep is a precious commodity and you value it when you do, but you can’t, from your standpoint, obviously. All the success, the phenomenal growth does make it a wonderful story to tell when you are spreading the word about UTOPIA. By the way, congratulations. If I have reading correctly, in 2020, you guys ended up the year with a 4.5 out of five Google rating. Obviously, you’re doing many things to spread and educate those who need to know what’s going on. I’ve noticed that you’ve also begun a residential fiber installation series. Tell us about that.

Kim McKinley:

When we go and when somebody calls in and wants to sign up for service, we go through how it works. Everybody just assumes when they call in, it’s going to be run exactly like the incumbent cable company, that there’s not going to be any trenching in their yard or whatnot. We started getting people getting all confused, like, “You have a crew that’s going to come out and dig in your lawn. Then a couple of days later, you’re going to have an inside crew that came in,” and we just really wanted to be more transparent about the process and kind of make it fun, like, “This is what it’s going to look like. This is how the experience is going to go,” and we just really want to get out there with more videos and more information of how fiber’s different.

Kim McKinley:

In the next few months, we have some about our 10 GB and what you can use in how do you speed test, but we’re going to explore all aspects of this video series about what’s happening at UTOPIA. This is a teaser, Roger is actually going to have his own little video series-

Kim McKinley:

… anything because as you can tell, Roger knows everything about everything. I always say, I’m trying to keep up with Roger. We’re going to start doing that soon, which he’s thrilled about as you can tell on the call, but we really just want to get out and tell more of the story of what UTOPIA is and more on a grassroots level and not from these high produced videos, just from who, Aubrey, who’s actually the one who narrates them, from a younger perspective, not somebody who’s been in this industry 10 years, somebody who’s been in the industry, one who can articulate it better than us when we get into the ponds and cat fives and stuff. Let’s break it down to an easy way to understand what we’re doing.

Broadband Remote Work

Roger Timmerman:

What’s interesting in the ski industry, being out there, I talk to a lot of people out on the slopes and what we’ve seen is… I talk to these people on the lifts. I’m like, “Well, where are you from? And what are you doing? What do you do for work?” What I’ve been amazed with is how many people have migrated and changed to a remote work environment and come to Utah to ski, right? Because of the broadband availability and the remote work acceptance, people are like, “Well, I don’t need to live in Silicon Valley,” or “I don’t need to live in certain markets anymore. I can do my work for half-day with a good broadband connection and go hit the slopes,” and that’s become incredibly popular. It’s not been great for housing pricing in Utah because it skyrocketed, but from a quality of life perspective and the ability to remote work and the use of broadband has been fantastic. This is an interesting impact of this remote work push lately.

Wildly Successful Open Access Model

Craig Corbin:

Obviously, what has been created there at UTOPIA is a phenomenally successful approach to open-access and wildly successful. Without question, the team chemistry that’s in place with your team plays a huge role in that. If I could get both of you to touch on that as we close out today, Kim, you first.

Kim McKinley:

I think the team chemistry at UTOPIA is really the secret sauce of why we are successful because when COVID hit back in March and we saw our demand skyrocket, I had customer service reps who were willing to work 12 hours to make sure we hit that demand, and I still see people who are willing to go above and beyond for this. It’s not just a job for people who work at UTOPIA. It’s really a passion and a mission to spread broadband throughout Utah in that throughout the country.

Broadband Access Throughout Utah

Kim McKinley:

I will say this, we’ve had about 10 employees who’ve left and come back to UTOPIA to work there. I think that says a lot about the company culture and what we’re doing and the passion. We work really hard, but we were really a big family at UTOPIA and it is just a great place to work and a great mission to be part of. I don’t like to give Roger a lot of credit, but he’s built a lot of this and a lot of our success is attributed to him.

Open Access Community Owned Fiber Networks

Roger Timmerman:

Kim took a lot of the points I would have made. This is a passion for us. Obviously, we have jobs and employment with UTOPIA, but we are a family and our family includes these cities, the customers themselves. We see them as the owner and stakeholders in the system because we are ultimately, a community owned effort. So we treat it that way. If somebody is having a problem out there, we go out of our way to take care of them because they’re our family, they’re our owner, and we serve these communities and we recognize the needs they have.

Roger Timmerman:

To Kim’s point, people will work 12-hour shifts or work over the weekends and do whatever it takes to make this successful and provide the very best service out there. That attitude keeps people here, keeps us happy, drives us crazy sometimes because it does demand a lot, but we have fun and it’s a great culture here. We feel really good about what we’re doing. It makes us feel good when we see all the positive reviews and comments online and take a lot of pride in providing the fastest internet in the country with the 10 GB offerings and just get service generally.

Kim McKinley:

Customer service is a very high turnover position. I’ve been over customer service for five to six years now, and we’ve had three people leave.

Kim McKinley:

That says a lot about what is really happening. Even from the highest position to the lowest position, it has infiltrated the passion throughout the whole company.

Craig Corbin:

Well, it is so amazing to watch what is being done at UTOPIA. Congratulations on a phenomenal year. The growth continues. Can’t wait to visit on down the line to hear more success stories. Thanks so much, both Kim, Roger, for sharing your time and the stories of what’s going on there.

The previous transcript has been edited for time and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch.