‘We don’t want to be guessing’; St. George mayor discusses quest for high-speed internet

St. George Mayor Jon Pike, St. George, Utah. July 2019 | Photo by Frank Forza, St. George News

ST. GEORGE  St. George Mayor Jon Pike says he and his staff are aware that the federal government has pledged $20 billion to bring 5G technology to rural America, and down the road, they will decide whether to pursue a piece of that pie.

But on Monday, Pike made it abundantly clear: Fiber optic cable is the first priority.

St. George’s top politician spoke in-depth about why city officials are studying the prevalence of high-speed internet throughout the city.

“We don’t want to be guessing,” Pike told St. George News. “Are St. George residents happy with their internet service, specifically its speed?”

Lacking statistics, Pike and his team have turned to the public, encouraging residents to fill out a 10-question online survey. The findings of that questionnaire will help shape the city’s next steps, but Pike said his personal observations, coupled with anecdotal evidence, make him inclined to believe there is a high-speed internet problem that could especially hinder business-from-home opportunities.

Read more: How online connected is St. George? City survey aims to find out

There are indications, Pike said, that decades-old residential areas have internet access but not the super-fast fiber optic cable variety. Falling under this category are downtown St. George, Bloomington, Bloomington Hills, Green Valley, Shadow Mountain and nearby Red Cliffs Mall.

Downtown St. George, Utah, March 5, 2016 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“So if you get a few devices going in your household at the same time, especially if they’re all streaming, you’re going to bump into buffering or not able to deliver at the speed you want,” he said. “Some people, especially if they’re doing business from home, they may say, ‘We’ve gotta have (high-speed internet).’ I think we’re going to see more of that.”

Some internet providers, such as CenturyLink, are providing high-speed internet cables, often for newer developments, at roughly a $75 per month price point.

“That’s great and the people that have access to that high-speed internet are thrilled with it,” Pike said. “New areas are easy to serve, and providers are doing that.”

However, it is considered more expensive to set up fiber optic cables in older neighborhoods that have been established for 20 or more years. Several internet providers have approached city officials over the years about expanding high-speed internet access into those older communities.

“What I’ve been told by the service providers is, ‘Well, if the city would help subsidize it, we would take (fiber optic cables) to Bloomington and other areas,'” Pike said. “We would rather not do that. We would love to not subsidize that with taxpayer dollars. We would rather let the free market do it.”

The public commenting and feedback period on broadband infrastructure runs for at least the next seven weeks. If at least 3,400 households participated in the survey, city officials say it would be statistically reliable enough to make an informed decision on the matter.

Pike theorized several scenarios that could unfold and shared his own hunch on how things will play out:

What I’m thinking will happen: There will be a significant number of people that will say, ‘Yeah, we’d like to have higher speed fiber-type internet service.’ We would then write a request for proposals and make that available publicly to providers who would consider laying out, installing fiber, to all areas of the city. We would assess those proposals. If there’s one that comes back that looks good, we would choose and contract with them like other communities have done in this state.

Pike said there might be a scenario where the city would foot some of the costs. However, if the number of high-speed seeking citizens is high enough, he envisions there would be several strongly interested internet providers, and city government wouldn’t have to subsidize any costs associated with broadband infrastructure expansion.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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