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Drew Clark: Bringing fiber optics to all of Wasatch Front is possible

Optic cable connected to a single patch panel.
Optic cable connected to a single patch panel.

Many business models have been disrupted by the internet. The next incumbent industry being challenged includes the old-style cable and telecom companies. They do everything they can to throw mud on the open-access fiber-optic infrastructure — including UTOPIA — that some of us enjoy along the Wasatch Front.

Don't fall for it. The future is brighter than the negativism of these companies and their allies in the Utah Taxpayers Association. That negativism leads to flawed studies like that from the University of Pennsylvania, which are easily rebutted by Next Century Cities and the Coalition for Local Internet Choice.

But one has to take a moment to understand why Utahns, and everyone in the country, want the opportunity for gigabit broadband at better prices.

Some utilities, like water, are pretty easy to understand. A city or a water conservancy district taps it at the source, purifies it and sells to citizens through a city's water mains and pipes. People accept that water is the city's responsibility.

Other utilities, like fiber-optic infrastructure or electricity, are more complicated. Sometimes services are provided by a private company, sometimes by a municipality. Many people ask why the public is involved at all.

The answer is this: City governments control their rights of way. They are never going to stop doing that.

Because cities are the guardians of their rights of way, they need to set rules that enable broadband competition and lower prices. For example, no one ever looks at the budget for street construction, repair and maintenance and asks why it isn’t a profit center.

Making sure the public roads are open to business and private economic activity is the very “business” of cities.

That’s the same way we should think about the information highways and byways. Fiber utilities, whether run by a city or by a public-private partnership, enable competition from many private companies. That includes advanced services such as telemedicine and enabling connected and smart homes of the future.

My city of Orem is one of 11 cities that participate in UTOPIA. It’s been doing it for more than a decade. Everyone agrees that UTOPIA has made mistakes.

But here’s what it’s doing right: It offers a great wholesale fiber connection, with faster speeds, lower prices and better service. It has helped jump-start a marketplace for competitive internet service providers. And you know what? CenturyLink and Comcast and other incumbent providers are more than welcome to join on this fiber network.

Yet these companies — which have a monopoly way of thinking in their DNA — would rather squeeze customer dollars out of existing, inferior copper and coaxial networks.

But building fiber, which is necessary to support the next-generation services and wireless 5G networks of antennas, requires significant capital expenditures.

Hence, the problem our cities face isn't with UTOPIA or with its business model. In Orem, the real problem is that only one-third of citizens have access to this vital network.

I'm running for City Council in Orem because I don't think that's acceptable. Every household in Orem pays, on average, $9 a month in taxes to support debt incurred to build the partial fiber infrastructure. That isn’t unusual. Every household in Provo, which now has Google Fiber, pays a utility fee of $5.35 a month. When Google bought the network from Provo, it left that obligation with the city and its citizens.

In Provo, almost everyone can get a gigabit. In Orem, where only one-third can, I’m running for City Council to put concrete options on the table. We need to build out the rest of the network for the other two-thirds of the city.

Where is that money going to come from?

Three years ago, a private company put forth a proposal to invest $350 million to build out UTOPIA for all 11 cities. Ultimately, it died because cities found it to be too expensive. It may have been.

But as cities from Ammon, Idaho, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, have demonstrated, there are many ways to build these networks more cost-effectively. I support considering many options, including inviting private companies to come to Orem that would be interested in building out the rest of our open access network.

Bringing fiber to all of Orem — and to all of Utah and Salt Lake valleys — is not an unsolvable problem. Just as our predecessors made Orem livable by digging irrigation canals that brought the Provo River to the “Provo Bench,” we can work together to build the next-generation network that all cities will need to find their way to the future.

Drew Clark is a former opinion editor of the Deseret News and a candidate for Orem City Council.