RT: Yes. We’re like the anchor tenant in a shopping center. Our presence helps spur economic development with long-term contracts. Education provides the incentive for the telecommunication providers to build the infrastructure and make the connections that otherwise might not happen. For example Emery Telcom invested over $2 million to bury the fiber that now connects Price to Moab. It made sense to do it because the schools needed it and entire communities would have more bandwidth and reliability. The project is cost-effective and everyone benefits as a result. There’s also another big benefit from leasing circuits and that’s E-rate.
DN: What is E-rate?
RT: It’s the FCC’s program to lower the cost of connecting public schools. It’s funded by phone customers. It shows up as a fee on your phone bill called Universal Service Fund. The leasing of telco circuits makes some of those costs eligible for E-rate discounts.
DN: So when Utahns talk on their phones, they’re helping to pay for UEN?
RT: Yes, that fee on your phone bill helps UEN and Utah schools and libraries. But it’s not just from Utahns. Phone customers throughout the nation pay into the Universal Service Fund, and we’ve been aggressive in using those funds for Utah education. The question is, are we getting our fair share?
DN: So what’s the answer? Does Utah get as much back from the Universal Service Fund as is paid into it?
RT: We’re getting closer. When E-rate started we claimed only a few cents on every dollar Utahns paid into the system through their phone use. Now we’re getting back nearly 80 percent. We see that increasing even more.
DN: Speaking of funding, what is UEN’s overall budget and what are the sources of those funds?
RT: Last year we had an annual budget of nearly $45 million. About 40 percent is from state appropriations, and the rest from various grants and programs, such as E-rate that brought in nearly $12 million. The big picture is that for every dollar the state appropriates to UEN, we’ve found a match of $1.43 from other sources. That’s a bargain for Utah taxpayers.
DN: What services do all those dollars fund?
RT: There are three big categories. First, we provide broadband and broadcast infrastructure. That’s about 70 percent of our budget. Second, we provide applications that flow on that infrastructure — services such as an online library for all schools and a learning management system for higher education. That’s roughly 25 percent of our budget. Third, we provide support and operational services to assist those who use the infrastructure and applications. That’s about 5 percent of our budget.
DN: How many employees do you have and what to they do?
RT: It’s a diverse and passionate group of 112. We have network, software and broadcast engineers. We have security, communications and finance experts. We have instructional specialists, trainers and leaders. Most have advanced degrees and professional certifications. Together with our board and advisory council we research, plan, implement and evaluate our services. We constantly seek to understand what our users need, what’s possible now, what’s likely in the future and how we can improve the ways we serve Utah education.
DN: In the year you’ve been CEO, what has been the biggest revelation to you about UEN?
RT: A couple of things have surprised me. One is the amount of information that is being requested and received on a daily basis. Just the amount of activity. You’d be amazed at how much activity there is going on with college students from 11 at night to 2 or 3 in the morning. I’m talking about working on their assignments. The way the Internet is being accessed and used at all levels is just tremendous.
DN: And the second surprise?
RT: The constant threats to security. I had no idea. We get millions of hits on a regular basis trying to find ways to break into the system. That just surprises me. They try to get in so they can use our backbone to ride the Internet and access others. About 75 percent of the attempts are from within the country, they’re not terrorist organizations, they just want to use us for their own purposes. But it’s hard to break through. We have a full-time security system in place. We are constantly making sure we have a secure network.
DN: What would you say to the public about the value of UEN?
RT: We’re extremely fortunate to have UEN here in the state of Utah. Demographically, we’re the nation’s youngest state and young people are digitally connected. We have world-class research institutions and they require broadband. Our legislative leaders, the executive branch and our education system all recognize how important it is to provide statewide infrastructure for education. That’s what UEN does. If you took UEN out of the picture you would have every school district on its own, every institution of higher learning doing its own thing. We don’t have to duplicate services and waste dollars because everything’s under the same roof.
DN: Your goals for the future?
RT: To keep connecting and make sure we maintain a sustainable pace with our growth. Every year we see an increase of approximately 12,000 to 15,000 students. That’s about 24 elementary schools that need to be built and connected each year. UEN infrastructure is a critical component to help us reach the governor’s goal of having at least 66 percent of our adults with a postsecondary degree or certificate by the year 2020. Education relies on access to quality resources. The more access we have the better we will all be educated.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org
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