Pandemic-driven need for internet leads Utah's UTOPIA Fiber to record year

Construction workers build the UTOPIA Fiber infrastructure.

(Courtesy of UTOPIA Fiber)

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MURRAY — After installing about 1.7 million feet of underground infrastructure during a pandemic and across several Utah cities in 2020, UTOPIA Fiber reported a record year, with a 50% increase in signups.

As the COVID-19 pandemic left many across the state and country to work, attend school and even meet with their doctor from home, the need for better internet access rose significantly, said Kim McKinley, deputy director and chief marketing officer at UTOPIA Fiber.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 35% of all workers 16-years-old and older teleworked in May as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. That number had dropped to 21% by October, which represented 32 million people. In December, the number rose to 23.7%.

In addition, Utah's need for fast at-home internet spiked in the spring: Former Gov. Gary Herbert enacted a 2-week "soft closure" of schools in May that ended up extending through the end of the school year, sending hundreds of thousands of students home to continue learning online. Even now, school closures, quarantine and isolation periods underscore the importance of fast internet for all communities.

"More people see that this connectivity is more considered infrastructure, and it's more of a necessity and essential than it ever has been or has been viewed before," McKinley said. "We've always thought it was essential, but not everybody agreed with us until we had a global pandemic."

UTOPIA Fiber started as a group of 11 local cities that joined forces in 2004 to bring access to fiber internet, a faster alternative to cable internet, to residential areas and businesses. The group is an Open Access network, which means they install fiber-optic cables and lease them to local internet service providers, giving everyone more internet options to choose from.

More cities have since joined in, taking that number to 15 cities. This year, Morgan and Layton were fully connected to the service and nearly all of West Point was connected as well. A minor hiccup left some residents in West Point without access to the service in December, but officials expected to see that issue resolved early in 2021.

The company also saw a 38% increase in residential daily data use and 10,200 new residential subscribers.

"We've built a network that's scalable, to be able to handle the broadband needs today and in the future," McKinley said.

In 2021, construction for several addresses in Clearfield, Lindon, Midvale, Murray, Orem, Payson and West Valley City are scheduled to be complete as part of ongoing projects to install fiber-optic cables in those cities. McKinley said UTOPIA Fiber is currently in talks with multiple cities potentially interested in joining and are at various stages of feasibility studies with some cities to see if the project would be a good fit for that area.

"We can see that we will probably have another record year in 2021. And that is what we're anticipating," McKinley said.

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Lauren Bennett is a reporter with who covers Utah’s religious community and the growing tech sector in the Beehive State.


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