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A Click Away: Helping rural residents stay connected with fiber internet

Checking your email on your smart phone in between meetings. Typing a question into your computer’s search engine and receiving an answer instantly. These are the conveniences of modern technology. And whether you are an entrepreneur living in Escalante or a farmer living in Fillmore, high speed and reliable internet has become mission critical to living in rural Utah.

Having immediate access to information is changing the way business is done in Utah, making the issue of location less important. In an age of telecommuting, businesses can set up headquarters anywhere and have become more focused on offering employees a desirable lifestyle.

“You see more and more lone eagles, even in rural areas, that have their own businesses and need broadband. They are able to live in a beautiful area and still do the job they love,” says Kelleigh Cole, director of the Utah Broadband Outreach Center (UBOC) that operates under the guidance of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

The good news is Utah is doing very well in installing broadband services throughout the state.  “Along the Wasatch Front, 96 percent residents have access to speeds of 25 megabits and above, and in rural areas it’s 81 percent. Frequently, we are in the top five as far as speeds in the nation and we are the fastest in the Western United States,” says Cole.

Initiatives to expand fiber

Expanding broadband infrastructure, in both rural and urban parts of the state, is essential for economic development. The UBOC released a broadband plan highlighting key initiatives, such as helping communities increase speeds and giving Utah students the tools they need to succeed.

The UBOC is a public/private partnership. When broadband providers coordinate and collaborate with government entities, broadband infrastructure can be deployed more efficiently and inexpensively. It works with companies to map where services are available, and to what level, while planning for future needs. For the past five years, Utah has maintained an interactive broadband map at broadband.utah.gov/map that allows users to identify broadband service by speed and technology type in all areas of the state.

“We know which companies are located and where, so we can tell them what services are available and who’s offering them,” Cole says. The state also houses a map that shows where business fiber is available at locate.utah.gov.

Broadband providers and public/private stakeholders meet regularly to discuss strategies to increase broadband deployment. The UBOC collaborates with stakeholders to find solutions in areas where residents encounter broadband issues. “Occasionally, we get a phone call from a provider telling us they want to get into this rural community and they are having permitting or regulatory issues, and we help them work through it,” Cole says.

Utah is leading the way when it comes to connecting residents to fiber networks in rural parts of the state. Cole references two mobile broadband drive tests where a contractor drove 6,000 miles of federal, state and county roads to verify mobile broadband coverage. The data was then compared to provider-submitted data to verify accuracy.

More bandwidth equals more opportunities

Access to broadband services is quickly becoming the most differentiating factor of our time, according to Amber Brown, marketing director for Beehive Broadband. Industries like education, healthcare and public works all rely upon advanced broadband networks, and their presence can have an impact on local economies, particularly in rural areas. “The investment in fiber networks creates job opportunities, growth and the economic stimulus necessary to keep rural communities prospering,” says Brown.

Individuals and businesses are using technologies that require more bandwidth than ever before. As more and more applications go online, staying ahead of the increasing demand for broadband coverage is a constant challenge. More people have additional devices in their homes and on themselves that require broadband connectivity. “Think about the number of devices on your body that speak to the internet.  If you have a Fitbit or an Apple watch or a cellphone, those all interface with the internet,” says Cole.

Collaboration

Collaboration between public/private partners is vital to deploying broadband infrastructure throughout the state at reduced costs. The Utah Education and Telehealth Network (UETN) is public/private partnership that works with private and independent telecommunications service providers to perform its mission. UETN connects Utah school districts, libraries, government facilities, higher education institutions and healthcare facilities across Utah.

UETN network bandwidth distribution expands distribution in Utah’s schools and libraries. This improves rural broadband access by helping schools, libraries and tribal centers to obtain scalable high-speed broadband services and develop sustainable critical broadband infrastructure for their communities. “Knowing that we are able to provide schools in the West Desert communities of Utah with the same speeds available to schools along the Wasatch Front is very satisfying and drives us to continue to push to make this more widely available,” says Brown.

UETN also connects hospitals, clinics and health departments into a secure healthcare network. Their higher broadband speeds allow for widespread use of electronic health records by healthcare facilities throughout Utah. “The network provides the platform for secure exchange of clinical health information among healthcare providers and facilitates the deployment of telehealth and telemedicine,” says Cole.

The connection between building roads and installing broadband may not be apparent at first, but new road construction is often the perfect time to install and expand broadband. In addition to building and repairing roads, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) also facilitates the expansion of broadband infrastructure into remote areas of the state, by expanding the agency’s fiber footprint and by installing and trading access to fiber conduit. UDOT helps facilitate the deployment of broadband infrastructure during construction projects providing substantial savings to all parties involved, notes Cole.

Success Story

UTOPIA (Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency) is a major initiative to bring fiber to Utah cities and rural communities. As a governmental agency, it builds the required broadband infrastructure, but leases its lines to private internet service providers. This subscription-based business model allows customers to choose the provider that best meets their needs.

UTOPIA identifies communities that want fiber, and then works with them to get fiber built and extend its operations and competitive environment into that community. Individually, these rural communities could never attract enough attention or funding to do that, but collectively under the UTOPIA umbrella, they have an established system of providers, notes Roger Timmerman, executive director of UTOPIA.

“Residents really like having options. We are seeing increased interest in our model that enables communities to build their own open-access fiber networks and how those networks can be operated and funded in partnership with other communities,” he says.

A year ago the town of Perry had very few options for connectivity. Today, Perry has the highest speeds available on the internet and it has 10 companies competing for customers. “Without a municipally owned network, high-speed fiber connectivity would have been impossible for our town,” Perry Mayor Karen Cronin says. “Our residents can now easily work remotely from their homes, video chat with distant family and much more. High speed internet no longer has to be viewed as a luxury in my community.”

As fiber internet connectivity is become increasingly important, both individuals and businesses realize how crucial it is to everyday life.

“Many years ago, people were asking: ‘What is fiber, and why do I need it?’ Today, they are asking: ‘How do I get fiber, and why don’t I have it?’” Timmerman says.