UTOPIA Fiber hits 55,000 subscribers, touts growing public partnerships

UTOPIA Fiber, an open access network provider operating in the Western U.S., disclosed Wednesday it’s reached 55,000 subscribers. The updated count comes after UTOPIA revealed it added more than 20,000 gigabit customers in 2022.

At this week’s Broadband Communities Summit, UTOPIA executives said it is continuing to add cities across Utah, Idaho and Montana, though they didn’t specify exact locations UTOPIA is targeting in 2023.

“We’re adding city partnerships regularly now…we’re in conversation with several additional cities,” said UTOPIA Executive Director Roger Timmerman, who mentioned existing ISP partners such as Idaho Falls Fiber and Yellowstone Fiber.

He added UTOPIA is well-positioned to help cities enhance their networks to handle increasing bandwidth demands.

“They can partner with us, they don’t have to worry about the fixed cost of starting this up, the risks, the software, compliance issues…there’s a lot of complexity that goes into open access fiber networks,” he said. UTOPIA aims to be a resource for cities interested in partnerships and those that want to “just kind of copy what we’re doing.”

UTOPIA was established in 2004 by a consortium of 11 Utah cities. Last year, it completed fiber builds in 14 cities across its existing three-state territory and struck a deal with California’s Golden State Connect Authority to boost rural broadband. Timmerman noted UTOPIA is also eyeing potential growth in Arizona, New Mexico “and some other states in that area.”

“A lot of people are announcing [starting in cities], not many people [are] completing them though. We’re very proud of these completed networks and expect many in the future,” he said.

UTOPIA through its partner ISPs offers three service tiers, 250 Mbps, 1 Gbps and 10-gig service. CMO Kim McKinley said the operator is seeing more uptake for the 10-gig offering due to an increased number of “10-gig consumer grade devices” in the market.

“Even with the three speed choices that we have on the UTOPIA network, you are seeing the majority of customers who are signing up now going with the 1-gig service,” she said. “And I think you’re going to see that exponentially grow in the next couple of years.”

In terms of customer reception, McKinley pointed out UTOPIA now has a 4.6 rating on Google, stemming from around 2,000 consumer ratings. “I think that’s unheard of in this industry that we’re still seeing growth in that area as well,” she added.

Politics of municipal broadband

Speaking more broadly on municipal broadband, Timmerman rebuffed the assumption open access networks are mainly popular in “left-leaning cities.”

“What people don’t realize is in an open access effort, it is a pro-private sector model,” he said. “We’re facilitating our local internet providers and enabling them to be competitive, provide good services. And it’s the lack of public infrastructure that prevents [that] from happening.”

Utah is one of 16 states that has laws hindering municipal broadband in some form. As BroadbandNow noted, one restriction is that municipal entities are limited in their use of municipal bonds to fund broadband projects.

UTOPIA is allowing its partner ISPs compete with the likes of incumbents such as Comcast and Lumen’s CenturyLink, which McKinley noted “are the two major incumbents in our areas.”

“By being an open access system, we’re actually very popular in conservative circles,” said Timmerman. “I don’t believe it’s partisan, but there’s a belief municipal fiber shouldn’t exist among more conservative-leaning politics. But when it comes to open access municipal fiber, it fits very nicely with that.”