Community • City goes its own way, succeeds as retailer where others struggle as wholesalers.
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Spanish Fork •One Utah city seems to have achieved the community-based, high-speed communications network UTOPIA set out to create.
Spanish Fork runs its own municipal network to deliver telephone, cable TV and Internet services. The network has deep ties with the community and is popular with residents, nearly 80 percent of whom are customers.
"It's exciting to live in community that invests in this kind of thing," resident Bret Bills said.
Twelve years ago, Spanish Fork was limited to Internet access via dial-up modem. Elected leaders feared they would lose key businesses to neighboring cities where private providers offered high-speed connections.
"We knew that if you didn't have Internet in your community, you were going to be a second-class town,'' said John Bowcut, the city's director of information systems.
Spanish Fork Community Network construction began in 2001, following city approval of a $7.5 million revenue bond to build the system. The bond was floated without a public vote, along with borrowing to build a substation for Spanish Fork's well-established electrical utility.
Today, the city currently makes about $1 milliona year profit from the service and its bonds of $600,000 annually will be paid off in 2015.
Bowcut attributes the network's success to effective marketing and "aggressive, competitive pricing." Internet access ranges between $35 and $75 a month for homes for 12-55 Mbps and $55 to $85 for business with substantial discounts for adding TV services. A $90 monthly fee bundles phone, internet and expanded TV package together. Installation is free for Internet services. There is no contract required and the first month is free.
So, why haven't other Utah communities adopted the same model?
Spanish Fork's foray into network services prompted state legislators in 2001 to pass the Municipal Cable TV and Public Telecommunications Services Act at the urging of private telecommunications companies seeking protections from what they saw as public-sector competition.
Spanish Fork was exempted but the law limited future municipal networks including UTOPIA and iProvo to operating as wholesalers. It also effectively barred cities from subsidizing network operations with taxpayer dollars or income from other city-run utilities.
The Spanish Fork network operates as a service retailer, meaning it deals directly with its customers, who buy TV, phone or Internet access along with other city utilities, such as electricity and water. All costs appear on one monthly bill.
"So far, the wholesale model has not proven successful." Bowcut said. "I don't envy the position of being millions of dollars in debt and having someone else do your customer service."
Meanwhile, the high-bandwidth network has reached widely into daily life in the Utah County community.
The Spanish Fork network provides access for most the city's churches and the Nebo School District. High school students produce a weekly community news show, all testing is now computer based and teachers routinely use wireless devices in the classroom.
The network has its own TV channel and production studios, creating hundreds of original programs a year on topics ranging from emergency preparedness to geocaching. The channel broadcasts a biweekly city news show and covers community sporting events, Rotary Club luncheons and city council meetings live.
Municipal buildings and facilities are all wired and government officials often use the network to reach out to residents. During a recent flooding emergency, Spanish Fork's director of public works provided televised updates on road blockages and the city's clean-up efforts.
The network has launched fiber-optic speeds of up to 55 megabits per second and is in the process of converting all its cable channels from analog to digital.
"I love Spanish Fork cable,'' resident Marietta Pruitt said. ``They are doing a fabulous job.''