Utah is one of the best-connected states when it comes to broadband. State agencies and major service providers have made and continue to make significant investments to ensure Utahns have high-quality internet to their homes, schools, and businesses. To better understand Utah’s broadband landscape, we sat down with representatives from the state’s major service providers and asked four questions.
Knight: The pandemic further sharpened our focus on digital equity. Comcast has been in the digital equity space since 2011 when we launched our Internet Essentials Program. This program provides low-cost in-home broadband service for low-income households. We are also participating in the federal government’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which provides a $30 voucher to households that qualify to put towards an internet package with an approved vendor. This program is critical to connecting underserved, under-connected, or disconnected households to the internet.
During the pandemic, we launched connectivity centers that we call Lift Zones. We partnered with libraries, nonprofit partners, and others to open about 30 of these across the state. Not everyone can have access to in-home internet, such as the unhoused and those in unstable housing situations, so Lift Zones give them a place to connect and find resources. We are working on opening more of these centers. Finally, we’re partnering with about 106 nonprofits to give away $4.3 million to help run equity programs.
Thomas: From the technical side of things, we’ve learned a lot from the pandemic. We saw a shift in internet usage, especially in bandwidth surges and traffic patterns. Despite the heavy demands placed on our network, it has continued to thrive. It’s always been about reliability and connectivity, but I would say that we understand that now after the pandemic more than ever. The pandemic allowed us to innovate by introducing smart software and virtualization and even taking huge steps in 2021 towards our next network evolution, 10G. We obviously saw demand for our service grow, and we were able to increase speeds for our most popular packages in spite of the spikes in demand.
Timmerman: The pandemic led to huge changes at UTOPIA. We saw about a 300 percent increase in the number of orders for our fiber service during the pandemic. Those orders all tended to be driven towards higher speed tiers than we were accustomed to providing. Prior to 2020, video streaming and social media were the top two uses for the internet, and we’ve seen that shift. With remote work and learning, there’s less tolerance for video buffering on Zoom than, say, a show on Netflix. More people are moving to more premium fiber packages of 1 Gbps or higher. Now that things are returning to normal, people are still expecting more from their broadband service. Things have calmed down somewhat for us, but we are still seeing 200 percent of the signups we were at pre-COVID.
Brace: From Google Fiber’s perspective, there are three ways to approach this. First, the relevancy of the internet was amplified. We’ve been doing digital equity work since 2012 and, up until the pandemic, that primarily consisted of educating and convincing communities, non-profits, and educational institutions of the importance of digital equity. Now that there is a broader understanding of the topic, we are assisting those same groups in developing their own digital equity plans.
Second, there was Google Fiber’s response to support schools, libraries, and nonprofits during the pandemic. We worked very quickly to get devices to students who went remote without existing infrastructure. I would say that the pandemic also spotlighted the relevancy of software, devices, and digital education.
Finally, the pandemic required us to evaluate how we can meet demand more quickly. Google Fiber expanded in Utah extensively during this period and Utah was the fastest growing market within the Google Fiber network for the same period. Utah is a hotbed for Google Fiber, there are a lot of great opportunities and great community partnerships for us here.
Berg: I would say that the pandemic forced all of us to get good at working remotely and even introduced efficiencies from the way we used to operate. From the Lumen standpoint, one of the key lessons of the pandemic is the need to continue connecting to as many homes and businesses as we can. We have made significant investments in our Utah network, and Utah is actually one of our top five markets in the country. Through the pandemic and moving forward, we’re prioritizing cyber security. Previously the focus was on protecting the network in schools, businesses, or the data centers, but now we’re emphasizing security at the edges of the network where the actual users are.
Brace: Basically, three pools of federal funding have been announced in the last three months: the American Recovery Act, infrastructure funds, and broadband funds. The program guidelines immediately let our state lawmakers understand how connected Utah is overall, but also how disconnected rural Utah is in terms of physical connections and speed connectivity. Much of the dense communities along the Wasatch Front and Wasatch Back don’t qualify for funding because of the heavy infrastructure investments that have been made for quite some time now. These funds are also facilitating conversations on what public-private partnerships can look like for building out fiber networks, and I would say one out of three city councils in Utah are having these conversations.
Timmerman: These federal programs were built with the desire to solve problems and allocate funds to them. What’s frustrating is that the current broadband standards that drive access to federal funding allocations are absurdly low by today’s needs. The current FCC definition of broadband is 25 megabits and was set back in 2015. In our post-pandemic world, with remote school and work, this definition needs to be raised to meet today’s needs. Here in Utah, these outdated standards mean that the state may receive lots of broadband funds but have very few areas eligible to benefit from them. In the communities where we’re building, they have asked us to come because despite having service that exceeds the FCC standards, they require better service and are willing to pay for it as a community.
Knight: Comcast welcomes the funding from the federal government. We see these programs as helping to disincentivize overbuilding broadband infrastructure in communities. We have heard from some communities that funds allocated for overbuilding could be used elsewhere to improve the community. In some areas, the issue isn’t a lack of access, but rather an adoption issue, as people don’t see the value of in-home broadband. We are working on projects in areas that are not currently served and are outside our footprint to make sure people have access to the internet. There are rural areas that do still need high-speed broadband and that is where we are focusing.
Thomas: I would add that fiber is an important tool in providing broadband to everyone, but it is certainly not the only tool. Comcast’s hybrid fiber-coaxial cable network contains 200,000 miles of fiber that help us better serve our customers. Our goal is to push our network deeper into neighborhoods to fill in pockets we currently don’t cover. The hybrid network also allows us to better manage traffic.
Berg: There are certainly still parts of rural Utah, including the Native American communities, that would benefit from better connectivity. Here at Lumen, we’ve seen success by partnering with smaller providers to find creative ways to connect those areas to our backbone. Many of these smaller providers and communities are applying for federal funds themselves and are getting grants. For us, the importance of connecting homes to the internet is for the students who need it to access education. To Roger’s point, it can be frustrating when working with federal programs. Here at Lumen, we’re building out as fast as we can with our own investment, but in rural Utah where it is tough to get fiber, we have to be creative and get them connected however we can.
Berg: Lumen’s top priority is bringing fiber to the home. We are doing a huge build in St. George, which is growing so fast, and soon there won’t be a part of that area of southern Utah where we won’t have fiber to the home available. We’re partnering with the city on this by putting conduit into the ground during the construction of new neighborhoods rather than later. We are also doing a lot of work in Ogden, rebuilding and revamping our network with brownfield builds. For both the consumer and business sides, we’re making major upgrades to the network in terms of edge compute capability. We’re upgrading our core network here in Utah by adding a Lumen Edge Computing node in Salt Lake. This is key for businesses to be within five milliseconds of response time to basically anywhere in the country. Finally, we are making network security a big priority by doing proactive work to secure network traffic and stop bad actors.
Thomas: Our first priority at Comcast is growth. We’re looking for opportunities across all lines of business. Our second priority is increasing network capacity and marching towards a 10G network. For Utah specifically, we recently announced we will be bringing service to just over 18,000 homes in Eagle Mountain in early 2023, investing $22 million in the community. We are also going to infill areas that are currently underserved within our footprint.
Knight: At Comcast, we have also pledged to be carbon neutral by 2035 and we are purchasing solar energy to start moving in that direction. We’re going to continue concentrating on investing in our employees and communities. We are also planning on continuing to let the communities inform our investments in community programs. Furthermore, we continue to lead the way on digital connectivity, DEI and veteran programs.
Brace: Digital equity will always be a core part of Google Fiber. We will also emphasize staying connected to our communities and helping them build out their digital equity plans. Google Fiber is also focusing on growth and customer service; we all want internet that we don’t have to worry about. Finally, we are going to continue to answer the call to action from communities and residents on bringing fiber to the premises. We want to be a consultant on making good sound decisions. Google Fiber sees Utah’s landscape as a potential leader in the nation on all three fronts.
Timmerman: UTOPIA has a couple of priorities for the state. First digital equity. There are still far too many households in Utah that lack high-speed broadband service because of cost or digital literacy. Next is bringing competitive options to our communities. Some may call that overbuild, but people want additional competitive options. We need faster speeds and to lower the costs of service to customers. We’re a public entity, owned by the communities we serve, so lowering the cost is a primary goal for us. We also want to support an increase in Smart City applications that would benefit educational institutions, city facilities, public safety efforts, public health, and municipal operations. We want to serve all of a community’s connectivity needs, not just bring fiber to the home.
Timmerman: Utah regularly ranks among the top in the nation for speeds, availability, and choice. We generally have better coverage, speeds, and competition than most states. We also have more municipal networks than any other state and it’s not just the 19 UTOPIA cities. Spanish Fork, Lehi, Providence, and Salem either already have or are building their own fiber networks. All internet providers are making significant investments in the state, and I also have to give credit to the Utah Rural Telephone Association members for making major investments in rural communities. The connectivity we have here in Utah isn’t just because of one of us here, it’s all of us.
Brace: The broadband landscape that Roger described makes Utah a desirable place to live, work, and play on a different level. We’re not just an outdoorsy or family values state; we’re a state that has opportunity. We’re a state that has built up connectivity. That makes Utah a place to do business, a place to set down roots. Whether you’re a big company or a startup, there’s a place for you in Utah to find the infrastructure resources you need to be competitive and grow. We also have talent coming from both public and private higher education institutions. Finally, our infrastructure is being built and revamped with the latest and greatest technologies.
Thomas: When it comes to running a network, it’s more than just building out the fiber network. For me, it’s about asking how you operate the network, how you maintain it, and how you monitor it. Anyone can put fiber in the ground, but what matters is how you respond when you have natural disasters, like the fires in Colorado. What sets us apart here is how we are ready to solve those issues.
Knight: Comcast is reinvesting in our network here in Utah. In the past three years, we have spent $910 million in capital expenditures, taxes, fees, and licensing agreements with communities in this state alone. We are here, we’ve been here, and we’re contributing to the economic structure of Utah.
Berg: I think the partnerships that we have with organizations like EDCUtah, the cities, and the counties are key to all of us growing our networks, being better, and reaching further into our communities. For example, our partnership with St. George is streamlining permits and conduit installation in new developments. Weather in Utah limits when and how fast we can build, but partnerships help make buildouts faster and better.