ST. GEORGE — It’s a complaint Santa Clara City Council member Jarett Waite has heard a lot from constituents: Why can’t we have better internet services?
This week, Santa Clara might become the first city in Southern Utah to take that question into their own hands. On Wednesday, the Santa Clara Council will decide whether to help create the infrastructure for a fiber-optic internet network that will go to every home and business in the city.
“I have countless anecdotes of people that have reached out to me and said, ‘Please, please, make this happen,’” Waite said. “This is going to be a good setup for the city.”
Santa Clara’s council will decide Wednesday night whether to provide back up for the Utah Infrastructure Agency and UTOPIA Fiber to build a $6.7 million fiber-optic internet network that would connect just about every address in the city to ultra-high-speed internet.
UTOPIA, which stands for Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency, has now built or is in the process of building citywide open-access networks in 17 Utah cities. UTOPIA said it was created in 2004 from a teaming of 11 cities that wanted to speed up bringing high-speed internet infrastructure to every home and business in their cities.
“Private sector companies weren’t coming to the table,” Bob Knight, spokesperson for UTOPIA, told St. George News. “Those 11 city leaders recognized that to be part of the digital economy, you need robust broadband networks.
Santa Clara may be the first locally, but other Southern Utah cities are lining up right behind it.
Ivins to the north has also been in discussions with UTOPIA and its UIA political subdivision since last year. Washington City recently began its own discussions as well. The biggest project – getting all of St. George connected – is also in preliminary discussions.
But Santa Clara is the furthest along. If the final go-ahead comes Wednesday, the first fiber-optic cables could be dug in by the start of the new year.
Not as much an internet superhighway for Santa Clara, but an internet airport for the city.
“I think the positive is definitely that we will be the first community in Southern Utah with fiber to every home,” Waite said. “We have a few pockets of it, all the cities have pockets of fiber here and there, but we’re the first one to actually get it to everyone.”
The model in play here is that UTOPIA and the state infrastructure agency would do all the expenditures, the building of the network and its maintenance. But people would not be getting UTOPIA internet service. Instead, they may be getting InfoWest, Fibernet, Beehive Broadband or at least 11 other providers that lease the lines.
Think of how a municipality builds an airport, but doesn’t create an airline for it. St. George may build St. George Regional Airport, but it doesn’t operate United, Delta or American.
“It’s a model that is used in other areas of infrastructure like airports where you have a public airport authority that owns the airport,” Knight said. “They paved the runway, they build the terminals, and then they lease out the gates to the various airlines and the airlines compete.”
Residents could also choose not to use the UTOPIA lines and stick with what they already have, though the UTOPIA network will always be there if they change their mind. Should a Santa Clara resident choose to go with one of the providers on the UTOPIA network, they will be using the fastest internet medium currently available to the general public.
Going to warp speed
Between 2019 and 2020, several Southern Utah cities united to conduct a survey of their residents to find out how they felt about their internet services.
What they heard back wasn’t pretty.
More than 8 out of every 10 residents expressed irritation with their current internet service provider, as well as a lack of options for providers. And Waite said the responses from Santa Clara were the most unhappy.
“I think it was over like 80% of respondents that said, ‘Please consider other internet providers for our area. And so that’s kind of the way that the council has been moving,” he said.
Much unhappiness may be from how much more people are using the internet over the past year – especially for watching entertainment on streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Disney+.
Compared to the current internet options for local residents, unless they already have fiber-optic lines, what the proposed Santa Clara citywide network would provide is night and day.
One of the biggest advantages fiber-optic internet has is speed. Not only will the overall speed be an average of 10 times faster, but the download speed and upload speed are identical. Upload speeds aren’t going to be a factor in what a person watches on streaming or seeing another gamer’s move, but slower upload speeds can affect what’s sent to others.
People on the other end of your Zoom call are more likely to see you pixelate and provoke the dreaded, “Are you still there?” Your opponent in Fortnite will see you just standing there, or moving in slow spurts.
For the most part, TDS, which usually utilizes the same kind of copper cabling as cable TV, can see fast download speeds between 300 Mbps and 1Gbps. However, upload speeds are much less – in the 10 to 30 Mbps range, which could prompt the, “Are you still there” question. CenturyLink, which uses the same RJ-11 wiring as land phone lines, and InfoWest‘s long-distance wireless internet will have the same download and upload speeds like fiber-optic. However, their speeds are limited to a maximum of around 60 Mbps. Now they can hear you, but you might have trouble hearing them.
The cheapest service on a fiber-optic network would provide 250 Mbps up and down. The maximum speed available would be 10Gbps, or 10,000 Mbps, though that would usually be reserved for business customers.
The average speed would be 1Gbps, or 1,000 Mbps. At those speeds, according to consumer site highspeedinternet.com, a nine-hour audiobook would download in 0.9 seconds, a high-definition movie in 25 seconds.
It also might make that dreaded buffering on streaming services as much a thing of the past as VCRs and 8-track tapes.
“So like when you’re streaming and you get that ‘wheel of death’ on TV, that’s not necessarily the download speed. That’s actually the upload speed, your system communicating back to the network,” Knight said.
High speed coming at a slow speed
For years, companies like TDS and CenturyLink have promised to eventually bring high-speed fiber to communities throughout Utah. But Waite said a private company can’t do it alone. Waite said this is a situation where the private industry needs the backing of government.
While all three major local internet services – TDS, CenturyLink and InfoWest have some fiber-optic offerings, they are usually in limited areas and it hasn’t been advantageous or profitable for the companies to expand beyond that.
“The project is going to be a little under $7 million for a little under 3000 households in Santa Clara. That’s just a lot to ask for any internet service provider to come in and spend that kind of money and ever expect to get their money back,” Waite said. “And so this really is that sort of situation where you would really have to have a partner that’s in it for the long haul. A city can do that.
“We met with TDS, we had discussions with InfoWest and what kept coming up in those conversations was, ‘We’ll do the upgrades, we’ll get better speeds if it’s economically viable,’ which totally makes sense. They’re a business and can’t just do these projects that won’t pay off.”
Knight said at present, there just is no reason for any of the private telco companies to increase their fiber-optic lines – especially in a more rural area.
“Big telco there, their investors want a three- to five-year rate of return, and you can’t possibly do that,” Knight said. “The numbers don’t work for them, which is why they’re still pushing out 1980s co-ax or, worse, 1970s-era copper wire.
Jarrett is conciliatory about the efforts of companies like TDS and CenturyLink but also thinks they need some competition.
“I really do think that our providers in the community are trying hard. I know TDS is heavily reinvested in our community. They’re only putting fiber in new communities now,” Waite said. “I know CenturyLink is also working to improve their services, but this provides another option basically for residents that will increase competition in the area.”
However, a representative for TDS said an open-access network has the risk of leaving a city and its residents being left with a debt-filled bill. Andrew Petersen, TDS senior vice president of corporate affairs, told St. George News they are already investing millions annually “to have the fastest and most reliable broadband, video and voice services in Southern Utah.”
“TDS has not participated in an open-access network in any of our 32 states. Many open-access networks struggle to get providers to participate, resulting in expensive network builds that don’t generate adequate financial returns,” Petersen said. “TDS owns and operates networks for the long haul. We continually invest to keep our networks secure and protected. We would not have that level of comfort in an open-access network.”
Under the proposed agreement, the Utah Infrastructure Agency would finance a $6.7 million bond to pay for the project. The city of Santa Clara would act as a kind of co-signer, backing the bond up off existing franchise and sales tax revenues.
Residents would pay nothing unless they signed up for a service that used the lines.
The 27-year bond would have no payments in the first two years, allowing for a subscriber base to establish itself, and under the plan, would ultimately pay for the bond.
Waite and UTOPIA both say that in each city that has started this kind of project, it was ultimately paid for by subscriber fees. But they add if Santa Clara becomes the first city where this doesn’t happen and the city has to pay part of it, it would be considered a loan from the city and would have to be paid back once revenues came up to speed.
Waite said he can confidently guarantee that Santa Clara is not going to lose any money on the internet project.
“When the fiber system is installed in Santa Clara, the Utah Infrastructure Agency actually takes out the bond to pay for the installation. It’s kind of like co-signing on a loan where we don’t actually have to pay anything on it,” Waite said.
The council member acknowledges that the 27-year bond will reduce the city’s ability to borrow, but he added that Santa Clara has “more than enough headroom to make bonds for a new fire station or major park improvements or anything like that.”
Knight said UTOPIA already has at least 14 providers aboard for their network that will be available to Santa Clara customers “on day one.”
But thanks to the supply-chain crisis, there is a time crunch for Santa Clara to commit to the open-access network before the end of the year. Waiting just a few weeks can boost the cost of the project by more than a half-million dollars with an ensuing 20% increase in the cost of supplies to build the network. Something pointed out to the council by UTOPIA Fiber CEO Roger Timmerman during a working meeting of the council last week.
“We don’t want to pressure the city, but there is a real cost between doing it now and doing it later,” Timmerman told the council, to which Mayor Rick Rosenberg replied, “I call this an opportunity.”
Early on in its existence, UTOPIA wasn’t as much an opportunity for the 11 cities initially involved. According to media accounts in the early 2010s, cities were saddled with debt especially as it took time to build the first networks. The Utah Taxpayer Association often lobbied against UTOPIA.
The UTOPIA officials admit the public-private partnership got off to a rocky start.
“The early years of UTOPIA were not pretty,” said Knight, but this was before a change in management, the formation of the Utah Infrastructure Agency and a change in how the projects were financed since then occurred.
“UTOPIA does the bonding and it’s backstopped by the local city,” Knight said. “Since 2009, every single utopia fiber project – that’s $330 million worth of projects – have been designed, built, financed and operated through UTOPIA without a dime of taxpayer revenue.
Criticism of UTOPIA has simmered down. The Utah Taxpayers Association hasn’t sent out a press release against UTOPIA since 2014.
Change in fee structure
Should the agreement with the UIA be approved, Waite and UTOPIA estimate it will take a year to two years for most addresses in Santa Clara to have the fiber-optic lines – which will be mostly underground – installed. At that point, Knight said residents will already have several providers to choose from.
Also coming would be a change in how people normally pay for their internet.
First off, residents will have to buy their own routers if they want to have Wi-Fi throughout the home. However, that router will work with any of the internet services.
Also, there won’t be any installation fees, as the wiring will already be installed. It’s like the old days of ordering home phone service where the wiring is already there, but one has to buy their own phone.
From there, the customer will pay $30 a month toward the maintenance of the network and an additional monthly fee to the provider for the service. That ranges from an additional $35 for 250Mbps to around $50 per month for 1 Gbps. Some of the providers will also offer additional television and home phone service.
There also won’t be any contracts or cancellation fees. If a customer is not happy with one provider, they can instantly switch to another.
“It’s just literally a flick of a switch and you’re on the other provider. You could sign up for one month and you know what, it didn’t work out. I’m going to cancel and there’s no fees, there’s nothing,” Waite said. “So this really puts pressure on a company to just provide that good customer service.”
Another thing that will come with that will be not being beholden to a company if it guarantees one price and then hikes it within a year.
“It’s kind of hard for residents to think they’re paying one thing for internet and then after a year it goes up to the new price,” Waite said. “We can just kind of avoid some of that song and dance and just have a good product at a good price.”
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.