Bryon Saxton
April 14, 2010

The Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Network needs roughly $20 million more in “new investment” from pledging cities, including five from Top of Utah, the largest being Layton.

The financial backing UTOPIA is looking for from bonds involves a first increment of roughly $20 million to be shared among the 11 cities, said UTOPIA marketing director Elizabeth Vincent.

“It would be new investment to expand the program throughout the cities,” she said. “All of the cities are aware of it and considering it.”

UTOPIA provides the infrastructure for a high-speed fiber-optic network designed to enhance Internet service for businesses and homes.

UTOPIA has had to ask for the additional bond money because of the downturn in the economy, Vincent said.

The 11 pledging cities include Brigham City, Perry, Tremonton, Layton and Centerville.

The 11 cities would then see some amount of growth with the new plan, she said.

Vincent said she suspects the cities will commit to the bond, based on the cities’ operating under the philosophy of when the tide rises, all boats float.

“They’re strongly considering (it) because it mitigates prior commitments.”

The sooner the pledging cities commit to the bond to expand UTOPIA, the better, she said.

However, there is no timeline for when the commitment to the expansion has to be made because the bond structure is still being worked out.

Pledging cities already have a prior 30-year commitment to the fiber-optic network system.

That initial commitment has not come without conflict.

The Layton City Council, by a 3-2 vote in 2008, approved committing to UTOPIA a 30-year sales tax revenue bond at an annual pledge of $1.4 million.

One who opposed the decision was Councilman Scott Freitag.

Freitag said he cannot comment on UTOPIA’s new proposal because he is not yet aware of it.

But in 2008, he said, he did oppose the city recommitting its initial pledge to UTOPIA because UTOPIA officials were not providing the council with a business plan for how it was going to turn its finances around to prevent the city’s bonds from being called on.

“I could not blindly support such a huge investment without knowing the outcome,” he said.

“I have always had trouble supporting the idea of government-sponsored telecommunication infrastructure. That philosophy has not changed for me.”

Another person critical of Layton’s commitment to UTOPIA is Bob Stevenson, who expressed concern over the UTOPIA bond debt in his unsuccessful run for mayor.

“You just can’t keep throwing money at a dying horse,” he said. “I’m afraid technology is changing faster than we can bond for money.”

Layton Mayor Steve Curtis said he expects the issue will come before the city council next month.

Because he was working for Qwest when the council took the vote in 2008, Curtis removed himself from that discussion and vote.

However, this time around, Curtis, now retired from Qwest, will participate in the discussion. He said he is concerned that, if the city does not act on the bond, it could lose the $30 million in pledge money it has already committed to UTOPIA.

“We need to be dedicated. I truly believe a commitment has been made,” Curtis said.

The same proposal is being considered in Brigham City.

If the goal is to make the system available to those who want it, the infrastructure needs to be expanded, said Paul Larsen, Brigham City community and economic development director.

“The system is not going to be put in for free,” he said.

The advantage of UTOPIA is its ability to offer a high-speed fiber-optic network that serves as an “asset” to economic development, Larsen said.

However, UTOPIA does have its detractors.

“It is just hard to get past the argument that this is competition for the private sector, this is something the government should not be doing,” Larsen said of the arguments made against it.

The cost for the system also is a concern, he said.

“It costs a lot to build infrastructure.”

And that is how he personally views UTOPIA, he said, like any other piece of city infrastructure — like building a road.

Freitag said he doesn’t agree with that view.