SALT LAKE CITY - It's no secret that the information technology sector is one of the great strengths of Utah's economy.
At entrepreneur-focused receptions around this city and in Provo to the south, it's hard not to run into startup veterans. These tech-savvy Utahns have built and sold successful businesses, often to larger entities in Silicon Valley or Boston or New York. Now they're drawn back home, seeking their next opportunity for tech innovation here.
These entrepreneurs are all the more reason we need to be paying closer attention to something less well-known: Utah's world-class telecommunications networks.
Think of tech imports with a strong Utah presence, such as Adobe, eBay, Microsoft or Oracle. Better yet, think of the home-grown "unicorns," tech companies of more than a billion dollars in market capitalization: Domo, Pluralsight, Qualtrics and Vivint.
Or think of the thriving human and public-sector networking, like the best-of-breed Utah Education Network; the early computer networking program at the University of Utah; or collaborative efforts like Silicon Slopes, Beehive Startups and RootsTech — the latter being a family history and technology conference with its sixth annual event here last week.
Will they, their customers and constituents benefit from better broadband?
They will. And they could benefit even more through adroitly exploiting largely-uptapped resources in the state.
Utah has an exceedingly large number of fiber-optic Internet connections permitting consumers to upload or download at gigabit speeds. There's more here than exist in Silicon Valley or Boston or New York.
These fiber-optic networks are the baseline infrastructure for what the national non-profit group US Ignite is calling "Smart Gigabit Cities." At the national launch of this group in Washington late last month, Utah Ignite — a joint effort of Salt Lake and Provo/Orem — was one of just 12 such communities to present its vision for the future. Others include Austin, Texas; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Champaign-Urbana, Illinois and Lafayette, Louisiana.
Information highways are the building blocks for software in the same way that physical highways are necessary for cars — old clunkers or autonomous vehicles — to get from here to there. Both information and concrete highways are strongly correlated with lasting economic development.
Smart Gigabit Cities are more than just faster web browsing somewhere. Particularly when united, the initiative helps "lower the digital distance" between cities, in the words of Utah's own Glen Ricart, chief technology officer of US Ignite and a member of the Internet Hall of Fame.
At the launch, Ricart laid out the ingredients necessary to be a part of this future.
In addition to gigabit speeds, communities need ultra-low latency, which permits holographic-like experiences such as symphony musicians playing simultaneously in multiple cities, or remote surgery.
Third, smart gigabit cities need the tools allowing "virtual" networks through something called "software-defined networking."
Search engine giant Google has probably done more than anyone to popularize the benefits of fast Internet speeds through its "Think Big with a Gig" campaign six years ago. The first Google Fiber communities in metropolitan Kansas City have indeed been transformed by entrepreneurial start-up culture. Two of the nine Google Fiber metropolitan areas are Salt Lake and Provo.
But those proprietary networks are only a small piece of gigabit Utah. Another key aspect is the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, or UTOPIA. It offers open access gigabit connections in 11 cities along the Wasatch Front.
A recent comprehensive report from the Utah Foundation on "21st Century Infrastructure: How Broadband Internet has Shaped and is Shaping Utah," summarized both the pros and cons of this pioneering wholesale network.
"While the original deployment has left communities with substantial municipal debt, UTOPIA is no longer losing money," said the foundation. "Furthermore, it has provided broadband speeds to communities that may not have had such service otherwise. In addition, many communities are modeling its open access structure, which allows small providers to enter markets without having to build their own cost-prohibitive network."
The report quotes Deb Socia, executive director of Next Century Cities, a consortium of more than 115 cities seeking faster Internet: "Someone had to be first, and the rest of the nation learned a lot from UTOPIA and iProvo," she said, referring to Provo's wholesale network purchased by Google in 2013. The open access nature of UTOPIA is particularly amenable to the flexible networking requirement highlighted by Ricart.
Additionally, the national US Ignite initiative aims to spur the creation of new applications that can then be utilized in all Smart Gigabit Cities.
At the Washington launch, Stanley Klemetson of Utah Valley University highlighted two early applications from Utah Ignite: A real-time air pollution monitoring system being developed by UVU; and an series of technologies from the University of Utah that will allow greater security for healthcare and emergency services.
They help show why Utah tech needs Utah’s gigabit networks.
Drew Clark is of counsel at the law firm of Best Best and Krieger, where he focuses on technology, media and telecommunications. Connect on Twitter @drewclark or via email at [email protected].