AT&T to join UTOPIA

Agreement gives big boost to Utah fiber-optic venture

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 24 2003 6:41 a.m. MST

AT&T has found UTOPIA.

New Jersey-based AT&T has signed on to be a "triple play" provider in UTOPIA, a Utah public fiber optics network that wants to deliver high-speed cable and Internet access to every home and business in its member cities. The company has agreed to offer voice, video and data services on the network, which UTOPIA hopes will get under way next year.

"This makes it real for us and real for cities and citizens and businesses," said UTOPIA's executive director, Paul Morris. While there was interest from other service providers, Morris said having a "heavy hitter" like AT&T was critical to the network's success.

"We're a wholesale network, and a wholesale network isn't good unless you have premier providers," Morris said. "AT&T decided that this (network) made sense, that it could make money and be competitive.

"It's a major step," Morris said. "It was like they said, 'If you build the network, we'll come and provide the services.' "

Currently, the UTOPIA consortium includes 18 Wasatch Front cities — seven of them in Salt Lake County. UTOPIA stands for Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency.

The contract with AT&T is non-exclusive, Morris said. AT&T will provide its services during the early stages of network construction. After about a year, Morris said, other providers will be welcome to compete.

"We made offers to Qwest and Comcast. They were the first we went to, and we will welcome them in the future if they want to come on the network," Morris said. "AT&T is aware that we're an open network. They're first to sign on, but we will be phasing in other competitive providers. AT&T is prepared and excited to compete."

John Polumbo, AT&T Consumer's president and chief executive officer, said Tuesday that "AT&T is thrilled to have a leading role in this new model of community networks which will open the doors to truly competitive telecommunications services."

"We are especially excited to be part of a public-private partnership that will make our advanced services available to the residents and businesses in the UTOPIA communities," Polumbo said.

But some have expressed concern about the proposal, which would require the 18 cities to borrow about $470 million to create the digital network. In the next few months, those 18 city councils will be asked to set aside revenue from sales taxes to guarantee funds for the project.

Qwest Communications International Inc. declined to participate in the program, expressing concern that the government shouldn't mingle with the telecommunications industry. On Tuesday, Jerry Fenn, Qwest president for Utah, reiterated the company's position.

"UTOPIA puts taxpayers at risk and can eliminate revenues for other important public works projects," Fenn said in a prepared statement. "Qwest has been a strong supporter of Utah's economy and has invested more than $1.2 billion in the state of Utah in the last five years. AT&T has not made such investments in the state. It should not be the role of Utah cities and Utah taxpayers to build a telecommunications network for a multibillion-dollar company like AT&T."

If it proceeds, UTOPIA proposes to bring fiber optic cable to the edge of every residential and business property in member cities. The connection will be extended to any office or home that subscribes to one or more services. Subscriptions would be paid to the service providers (like AT&T), which in turn would pay UTOPIA for the use of the network. The money would be used to pay off bonds and operating expenses.


E-mail: jnii@desnews.com

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