For a technology that can move at the speed of light, deployment of the UTOPIA fiber-optic network has been extraordinarily slow.

But the four-year-old network started picking up the pace a few months ago, after securing approval for a $181 million refinance from 10 of its 11 Utah municipalities.

The grand experiment of city-funded technology infrastructure, however, isn't completely out of the woods. The Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency still isn't operating in the black and continues to struggle with public perception and transparency issues.

Further, UTOPIA may not be able to rely on its new bond money for as long as it planned. The first debt payment is due in 2010, but the national economic crisis has "shortened the runway for takeoff," said UTOPIA spokesman Hugh Matheson.

In recent months, UTOPIA added a new general manager unscathed by the massive mistakes of the first team. It also moved its network operations center in-house, produced a Web site with a new brand and hired telecommunications professionals from the failed iProvo fiber-optic project in Provo. The new Web site isn't complete, but when it is, residents will also be able to access an interactive map and petition UTOPIA for quicker deployment in their neighborhoods, Matheson said.

The system is now growing at a rate of 300 to 400 subscribers per month. The organization harbors hopes of doubling or tripling that figure in the new year, Matheson said.

Fiber was deployed in Tremonton for the first time in October.

"All we want to do is give our citizens an opportunity to buy services at a competitive rate," said Tremonton City Manager Rich Woodworth. "We believe we owe that to our citizens — to let them be part of same century. The future is in what we're trying to do and what we're trying to achieve."

Woodworth explained that the only Internet service available to Tremonton residents before UTOPIA was so slow, "Every time I watch George Bush, he's doing the funky chicken because I can't get it to stream."

Other Tremonton residents are using the "technology of the future" to unearth the past at the local family history center.

Genealogy volunteer Marius Christensen can now use the faster, cheaper technology to get more work done, he said.

In Centerville, city officials are working with UTOPIA staff to figure out the best timetable to bring service to residents.

Blaine Lutz, assistant city manager, said the city will likely have to overcome some hurdles to bring UTOPIA service to Centerville.

"Electronics is the first step," Lutz said.

The city may look toward building a UTOPIA fiber hub on the west side of I-15 to cater to a growing business population.

In the meantime, city officials are waiting to hear back from consultants.

Among its other accomplishments, UTOPIA has convinced its biggest critic to help it work toward success. Royce Van Tassel of the Utah Taxpayers Association has conceded that failure of the network would be bad for everyone, but still thinks the concept was flawed from the get-go.

UTOPIA has also tapped blogger Jesse Harris to lead a community input committee that reports to the network's general board.

Most importantly, however, the network has changed its focus and now operates like its big-business competitors, adding infrastructure only in profitable neighborhoods. This way, the burden of cost will eventually be shifted to the end users, Matheson said.

But Van Tassell continues to cry foul, saying that UTOPIA's mimicking business just proves that the socialist concept can't work.

Additional information can be found on Harris' blog, freeutopia.org, utahtax.org or on UTOPIA's new site at utopianet.org.


Contributing: Joseph M. Dougherty


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