My view: UTOPIA committed to achieving success

By Alex R. Jensen

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 8 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Oct. 20, 2011 file photo, Network Operations Center Manager Troy Thompson, standing, talks with Technicians Brian Merell, front, and Donald Seher, right, during work in the NOC, Network Operations Center at UTOPIA, a fiber optic company.

Scott G Winterton, File, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

We were surprised to read the Deseret News editorial suggesting that UTOPIA, the fiber optic network 11 Utah cities are building, simply be shut down in the wake of a recent legislative audit recapping mistakes made in the network's early years ("Time to end UTOPIA: Enough taxpayer money has been wasted on money-losing effort," Aug. 3).

UTOPIA, in the editorial's knee-jerk opinion, should not have been built in the first place and "duplicates more innovative projects taking place in the private sector."

Really? What and where are these more innovative projects? The UTOPIA member cities embarked on creating UTOPIA a decade ago precisely because next-generation connectivity infrastructure wasn't forthcoming from the incumbent telecommunications providers. They seem content trying to eke as much revenue as possible out of their creaky copper wire and coaxial cable systems. And, as near monopolies, they have little incentive to bring fiber optic technology to their many thousands of Utah customers, despite relying on the public right-of-way to serve those customers.

In fact, a strong argument can be made that the truly innovative UTOPIA network is prodding the incumbents to upgrade their own systems. The foresight demonstrated by UTOPIA cities is proven every day.

A decade ago, who could have predicted the explosion of connected devices and online services? By bringing ultrahigh-speed broadband to their communities, UTOPIA cities help businesses grow by providing a way to effectively handle ever-increasing demands for quickly transmitting data and residents enjoy life by offering them the services they want at the prices they want to pay.

What's more, the editorial ignores the fact that UTOPIA member cities must pay off the costs of building the system, even if it were to be shut down. So, ending UTOPIA now would mean years of financial obligations with no revenue from paying customers.

The idea of selling the network to a "white knight" company is yet another red herring. Another provider may want some of the system's assets at fire-sale prices but certainly would not take on UTOPIA's debt. Finally, a private provider would surely change the network's open access model to a closed, proprietary one, increasing costs for end users.

It's clear that UTOPIA has made some major mistakes in the past and has not met its ambitious targets (something that happens frequently in the private sector, too, by the way).

There are plenty of reasons for this, but our residents don't want excuses; they want a clear path forward that pays back the network's debt and provides the 21st century services we promised them. That's what we're giving them.

Yes, UTOPIA will require continued investment to succeed, but there is light at the end of the tunnel, and we're committed to getting to a positive revenue position as quickly as possible.

Alex R. Jensen is the Layton city manager and Utah Infrastructure Agency first vice chairman.

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