WASHINGTON CITY — Washington City officials are looking into the possibility of expanding broadband infrastructure to under-served parts of their community.
During a workshop meeting of the Washington City Council held Wednesday, City Manager Jeremy Redd said newer developments in the city, such as Washington Fields, had broadband internet infrastructure in place while older parts, like the downtown area, did not.
“Broadband is starting to be considered a utility by a lot of people,” Redd said. While local internet service providers, or ISPs, are getting the needed infrastructure to new development, they aren’t getting into the older neighborhoods as fast as city officials would like. “In reality, we’d like to see them in every part of the city.”
A possible way to alleviate the issue – which is also in the preliminary stages of discussion – is joining UTOPIA Fiber to bring in the desired infrastructure. UTOPIA, or the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency, is a collection of 11 Utah cities formed in 2004 “to build, deploy, and operate a fiber-to-the-home network to every business and household within their communities,” according to the agency’s website.
“They’re in the ground in many cities now,” said Steven Whittekiend, the Information Services Department director for the city.
Washington City had been a part of UTOPIA in its early days as a non-pledging member, but Whittekiend said it eventually dropped out due to concerns city officials had at the time, adding that was no longer the case.
Whittekiend also said broadband internet access had become an increasing important issue for both homes and businesses as people moved to conducting more of their personal business, education and commerce to the online realm over the last year due to the pandemic.
“A lot of people live here that work (for companies) in California and make California wages,” Whittekiend said, noting as a potential economic benefit to the area the expansion of community broadband infrastructure could have. “With 10 gigabytes, you could run almost any business you wanted,” he said.
Another avenue Whittekiend said could see a benefit from an infrastructure expansion is better access to telemedicine services.
Presently, telecommunications services and local ISPs provide the broadband infrastructure which hasn’t spread as far as the city wants, Redd iterated. Going though UTOPIA could allow that infrastructure to go in quicker for both new and existing parts of the city. Funding for the project would come through a bond that would be backed by the city.
“Once (the news) reports on this, we’ll have some of our current (internet) providers say, ‘Why are you doing this? We’re currently in your community providing these services,’” Redd said. “I think that’s a very good discussion to have, but the discussion needs to be, ‘That’s great, when are you going to be able to provide all of those services to the rest of the community?’”
The city will be happy to step back if the local ISPs want to step up providing greater broadband access, he said, but add that broadband itself “is a critical utility at this point.”
“Back in the day, not everyone had electricity, but it was soon considered necessary,” Redd said.
Having the city treat it as a utility was an intriguing idea, council member Doug Ward said. It “just made sense” for there to be a potential monopoly – in this case possibly through UTOPIA – on the broadband infrastructure like the city does on power and sewer infrastructure.
Once installed through UTOPIA, local ISPs would need to contract with it to provide service over the agency’s fiber network.
However, Ward also said he would also like to hear from local internet service providers about this possible course of action. Perhaps there was a “win-win” for them in it as well.
If the city goes with UTOPIA, Redd said there’s a hope other cities in Washington County may want to utilize the service as well. Having more local cities join in would help cut the cost of the overall project, he said.
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