Gigabit Cities

Getting It Right: Utah, CenturyLink & Gig Nets

CenturyLink's announcement this week of its major Utah fiber deployment on behalf of the Utah Education and Telehealth Network is an example of a public-private partnership that both parties say is working as it should. With UETN as its anchor tenant, CenturyLink is building out a terabit network that will reach 1,400-plus schools, and take fiber past more than 100,000 homes and 30,000 businesses. The deal was made possible by a process that lets the statewide network agency determine its requirements and then put them out for competitive bidding. (See CenturyLink Builds Terabit Network for Utah Schools.)

More than 800 schools will be fiber-fed and get service that starts at a gigabit and goes up, says Jeremy Ferkin, CenturyLink vice president of operations in Utah. CenturyLink is connecting about 60% of Utah's schools, and health clinics and libraries in those school communities are also being connected. CenturyLink isn't disclosing what portion of its $3 billion capex budget it is pouring into Utah, he says, but it is a significant investment that would have been even greater had it won more turf in UETN's competitive RFP process.

"We thought we were going to win more than we did -- it was a very competitive process," Ferkin says. As it is, CenturyLink's new fiber network will pass almost half of the 64,000 businesses in Utah with at least one employee, he says, in addition to the homes, schools, libraries and clinics.

CenturyLink was already building out its gigabit network in Utah, which is undergoing significant economic development, much of it from the technology sector. The carrier provides gigabit services to more than 11,500 businesses along the Wasatch Front, and is deploying 1 Gig services to homes in Salt Lake City and in the St. George area of southern Utah.

"The technology economy is growing leaps and bounds in Utah," Ferkins says. "It is close enough to Silicon Valley to have expansion offices here for technology companies and it's attracting venture capital funds. The political environment is very pro-business and they are driving a collaborative environment as well."

Of course, CenturyLink also faces competition in Utah, where Google Fiber operates the former municipal fiber optic network in Provo and is expanding its reach there.

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What was the Utah Education Network was set up by the state legislature to connect schools but not allowed to own or operate the network, says Ray Timothy, CEO and executive director. Instead, it does the engineering and design work and puts out RFPs to which telecom operators respond. UEN and a statewide telehealth network were combined when a state legislator who served on both boards realized they were essentially building duplicate networks. Some of that duplication still exists, Timothy admits -- there is at least one remote site where the two networks have microwave towers standing side-by-side -- but it is being eliminated.

UETN also takes the step that is sometimes lacking in other efforts to connect schools, in particular: It has a process for "training the trainers" that puts boots on the ground at the schools to show them how to use the technology to their advantage. UETN is also operating regional service centers that can provide ongoing support.

While much of Utah's population lives along the Salt Lake mountain range, which includes Salt Lake City, Ogden and Provo, Timothy says, UETN is determined that even students living in remote areas will have the same educational access. He cites the Lake Powell area near the state's southern border, where the entire K-12 school district has 22 students. Distance learning is letting those children have access to the full range of coursework, despite not having teachers on-site.

Through a grant program, schools can ask to have specific programs funded, and the types of programs they are asking for are getting more technologically advanced, Timothy says.

The win-win in Utah is that having UETN as an anchor tenant is enabling CenturyLink to expand the reach of its gigabit network more quickly to more businesses and homes, Ferkin says. The RFP bidding process has forced the company to "sharpen its pencils" and build as cost effectively as possible to compete, and the contracts will be re-bid every five years. But with business in hand, the build-out is more immediately possible.

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

EdwardIverson 1/21/2016 | 3:44:42 PM
Utah is progressing! I am sure that they've made a right choice when focused on tech and attracted so many students. It will bring many benefits to the state starting with overall educational level and finishing with higher average salaries. But I heard that some of the students were caught on cheating with this service http://gohunters.com/coursework-writing. Now when oil prices are falling down to historical minimums I guess even North Dakota growth would be beaten.
KBode 4/22/2015 | 5:00:49 PM
Re: Beehive of activity As Carol suggests there's a lot of money and a lot of business professionals there who ski hard, and work hard, and want more than Qwest (now CenturyLink) was traditionally willing to offer. It's why the municipal broadband effort known as Utopia got off the ground in the first place (though only after they had to fight Qwest lawsuits related to pole attachements).
mendyk 4/22/2015 | 3:23:11 PM
Re: Beehive of activity So who's living in the alternate universe -- Silicon Valley titans, or the rest of us?
cnwedit 4/22/2015 | 3:21:12 PM
Re: Beehive of activity According to the CenturyLink folks, Utah has become a place where Silicon Valley companies have a location because it's a 'business-friendly' state with a decently trained population. And it's not that far away. And as happens elsewhere, tech firms start to cluster and the cluster grows.

According to a couple of articles I read in trying to verify that viewpoint, Utah's mountains offer skiing, biking, hiking and more that is appealing to Silicon Valley execs.

At any rate, the state's job growth rate the past few years has only been exceeded by North Dakota's oil boom (now a bust) and much of that is tech-related.
mendyk 4/22/2015 | 3:08:20 PM
Beehive of activity Any idea why Utah attracts a disproportionate amount of broadband attention? Is it the Salt Flats? The smiling, happy people? The absence of Coke machines?
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