In my recent State of the State address, I talked about a vision of Utah as a "digital state" -- about how we become a technology leader by having modern, high-speed, advanced telecommunications systems and technology in place for our residents and businesses. In the near future, I believe it will be as important for every student, home and business to have affordable, high-speed, high-capacity connection to the Internet as it is for us to have phone service today.
There are several technologies existing today that can deliver this type of connection -- which we refer to as "webtone." Those include xDSL, ISDN, cable-modems and wireless data services. Tomorrow, there will be more that we haven't even heard of yet. Some Utah businesses already have access to these technologies, but many do not, and most of our homes and schools do not. If these technologies are made available quickly throughout Utah, it will open up significant new opportunities: allowing schools to deliver educational services directly into homes; allowing businesses to leverage electronic commerce opportunities; and allowing people to access government services and information more efficiently than ever before.I am convinced that building this digital infrastructure is as important to the economic well-being of our state as rebuilding our interstates. However, in this case, it isn't something government can or should be building. These digital networks are being built and deployed by the telecommunications companies and technology providers, and they are making good progress.
ISDN and xDSL services are available in some areas now and are being deployed more broadly every month. I am optimistic that cabIe-modem and wireless data technologies will be offered here in the near future. There are fiber optic networks and "trunk" lines being installed throughout the state.
One of the real challenges, though, is that we also are undergoing a major transition in the telecommunications industry -- moving away from a single, regulated provider to an open, competitive environment with multiple providers. That is a complex and difficult transition as we try to create an environment where market forces and competition will write the rules, rather than legislators and government regulators. Right now we are somewhere in the middle of that transition.
I have spent considerable time studying what is happening in terms of getting these new, high-speed technologies in place and moving to an open, competitive market for telecommunications. I have met openly with the telecommunications companies and with consumer groups to discuss it with them. I have also met with many of them individually to understand their business plans, what they think needs to happen next in the regulatory environment and what barriers they face to deploying advanced services statewide.
Having done so, I find that each party has a different opinion on this issue -- and each feels like the other guy is getting all the benefit. But my conclusion is this: At this time, we do not need further deregulation in order to see continued deployment of advanced telecommunications services. And, for now, it is in the best interests of the state to maintain the current regulatory environment while competition continues to develop.
Utah is a very attractive market for telecommunications providers to invest in, especially in the concentrated areas along the Wasatch Front. We have a highly educated population that is technology-savvy. We have new technology and infrastructure being deployed for the Olympics. We have a high concentration of technology companies and businesses. We have a higher percentage of homes with personal computers than almost anywhere else in the nation. And we have a high percentage of businesses, schools and homes connecting to the Internet. The demand for xDSL service is high in areas where it has been introduced. That will help drive further deployment. As new technologies, such as cable-modems and wireless services, are introduced here, they will further propel the rapid rollout of advanced telecommunications services.
Outside of the populous Wasatch Front, however, there do appear to be more significant barriers to the deployment of advanced, high-speed, broadband services. There are some steps being taken, even in very remote areas of the state, but there is more that needs to be done. This is the one area where I have proposed that we move forward with telecommunications legislation this legislative session.
The Legislature has approved my request to form a Rural Telecommunications Task Force. This task force will identify barriers, recommend solutions and suggest policy changes to the Legislature and the Public Service Commission to accelerate the deployment of these technologies in underserved areas of the state. I am also recommending that the same task force develop eligibility criteria, to the extent practical and reasonable, that would allow use of State Universal Service Funds to help "incent" deployment of broadband data services in areas of the state that do not have them.
The goal of providing Utahns with the best possible telecommunications infrastructure is a vitally important one. It is critical that it happen statewide. It is critical that it happen in a timely manner and that these advanced services be affordable for both businesses and individuals. To the extent we succeed in achieving this goal, we will be well positioned to succeed in the 21st century economy.
I invite all of the telecommunications and technology providers in the state to continue to work closely with government to ensure continued progress in this area. Let's put aside the political back-biting and legal wrangling that characterizes so much of the process today and work together to make sure Utah is a digital state by 2002.
Michael O. Leavitt is governor of Utah.