A Year And A Half Of Internet Access Without Cable Or The Phone Company
A connected life with community broadband.
I have been free of Comcast and Centurylink for 18 months now. Centurylink ran a wire to my home as part of their franchise agreement with the city when this home was built, and I left them. Comcast never even bothered to run a wire to my current home in the first place. I don’t miss either one of them now.
On May 21st, 2018, after a decade of lobbying, letter writing, phone calling and exerting my own political influence in every way possible, I finally got a connection to Utopia Fiber. Utopia Fiber is a community broadband service for 16 cities in the Wasatch Front near the Great Salt Lake.
Community broadband is what you will see in communities where the incumbent internet service providers refuse to improve or build out their services to every home. You will find community broadband in cities where there was service, but the service was slow, unpredictable and/or expensive. Community broadband occurs when there is a market failure, where the incumbent monopolies could take their own sweet time to provide access to the internet for the communities they are supposed to serve.
Utopia Fiber is a user-friendly name for the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency, UTOPIA. Utopia Fiber is a great example of community broadband. Community broadband is trending in the United States, but slowly. It is a tiny segment of the total internet service market, but it is there for people who are vociferous enough and organized enough to get it. According to muninetworks.org, more than 800 jurisdictions across the United States now have community broadband, and I live in one of them.
Life with community broadband has been great. In 18 months, I’ve never seen a service interruption. I have had numerous service interruptions with both Comcast and Centurylink, though I found that Comcast was more reliable than Centurylink. With Utopia Fiber, I never even have to think about my connection. It just works.
One thing to note about Utopia Fiber is that it is an open-access network and that it is prohibited by law to sell retail services to residents in their service area. Third-party providers sell access to the Utopia Fiber network, and currently, there are 17 service providers to choose from. I chose XMission, the very first ISP in Utah, as my service provider on their network.
In 18 months of service with Utopia Fiber, I have never seen a speed test on my network with a result that was lower than the advertised speed. My current plan is 250 Mbs up and down, which means I have a symmetrical service. My connection usually tests about 275 Mbs down and 256 Mbs up.
Most ISPs provide a high download speed and a slow upload speed. Not so with Utopia Fiber. The download speed is the same in both directions.
I can also get “a gig”, or 1 Gbs up and down. That is the maximum theoretical speed with my current hardware, and due to data overhead for each packet, the actual speed will be somewhat less than 1 Gbs. XMission also offers a 10 Gbs speed tier, also symmetrical but that is very expensive. I’m sure that’s just for show, and there are probably a few people out there who actually have that level of service. I’m fine for now with 250 Mbs.
Pricing is very reasonable, too. With Xmission, I have the 250/250 plan for $37 a month. I’m also paying the city $30 a month on a 10-year loan to buy the connection for a total of $67 a month. When the loan is paid off, I will own my connection free and clear. That means the $30 a month I’m paying to the city now will eventually stop. At that point, my cost per month will be just $37 a month. For another $13 a month, I can get a gig.
It is also worth noting their invoices. Each invoice has a single line. That means they aren’t stacking up miscellaneous fees that require a phone call to understand. They aren’t padding their invoices to increase their profit margins at Utopia. They can’t with the city because it’s just a loan, amortized over ten years, and in 2019 that loan will be done unless I pay it off early.
I remember when I asked about pricing with XMission. “So the fee is $37 plus taxes and other fees, right?”
“Nope. Everything is included in the price.”
“Huh. No gotchas? No mysterious fees?”
“Nope. Just a simple internet connection that works, for one fee.”
One other thing that I don’t miss about Comcast or Centurylink is the annual haggle call. That call is precipitated by the annual price hike. So every year, I’d get a statement in the mail from Centurylink or Comcast with an invoice amount greater than the year before. Then I’d have to call customer service and ask for the next great deal to get a discount on the new rate. That would often mean a commitment to stay with their service for another 12 or 18 months.
If there was real competition, that process would make sense. But in my previous home, there was only Centurylink offering a puny 5 Mbs. Even with that low speed, they would only guarantee 80% of that speed. On the other side of the same street, there was Centurylink and Comcast. It took me 18 months and some luck to finally get Comcast on my side of the street. And with Comcast, I got 50 Mbs when I was paying for 25 Mbs, and much better service. I think back then, I was paying $50 a month for service at the start and over time, it got up to $70 a month. The rates really creep on you with Comcast and Centurylink.
I canceled my service before my contract with Centurylink expired just to get on Utopia. They dinged me a hundred bucks and some change after that, but I didn’t mind. Where I was going, I was never going back to cable or the phone company again.
Even when I moved to the house I live in now, for four years, the only wired service available was Centurylink. And I think I got 20 Mbs from them with 5 Mbs up. The difference between Centurylink and Utopia Fiber was evident to my wife. My wife is a voice artist and her specialty is Vietnamese voice-over. When she uploaded a sound file with Centurylink, she waited for 20–30 minutes for the upload. With Utopia, she could upload her sound files in a couple of minutes.
Data caps. You might know about the data caps. For a long time, Comast had a 300 GB data cap. Go over that limit watching Netflix or Prime and expect to pay more. In 2016 moved it up to 1 TB, and they claimed that 99% will never exceed that threshold. Maybe not on HD TV. But with 4k, I’d expect more people to pay more.
When I started on Utopia, I had a 2 TB data cap, and that was a soft data cap, meaning they don’t really enforce it except for the abusers. The last time I checked, the data cap was set at 10 TB. I don’t know of any private ISP with a 10TB data cap at the speeds I get, for the price I’m paying every month. And now that I’ve got a camera doorbell, and another camera planned, I don’t have to think about capacity or data caps. I can just build out my home the way I want it to be.
Utopia simply outperforms private ISPs on every metric. Their service is so good that I hardly ever have to engage their customer service team. Their prices are great because their service is so good. When the service works and works well, more capital can be allocated to the hardware than for public relations. That’s a virtuous cycle that Wall Street hasn’t figure out yet, or Comcast would not be one of the most hated companies in the United States.
So by now, you’re probably wondering how to get this kind of service in your neighborhood. Well, let me introduce you to one of my favorite organizations working on this issue, Community Broadband Networks. Community Broadband Networks is a part of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), an organization dedicated to the concept of local control and reliance.
Community Networks has been following a trend where a growing number of states have adopted laws that make it near impossible to raise your own community network. Rather than improving their service, the incumbent ISPs have been buying laws to fend off competition, especially public sector competition. They are pretty much doing what the hedge fund investors are telling them to do — treat their customers poorly. ILSR and Community Broadband Networks are working together to help communities assert local control over their internet access so that they can build their own networks.
Communities across the country are slowly beginning to realize they’ve been had by the private ISPs lobbyists and many of them are actively talking about or investigating a public option for internet access. Community Broadband Networks is just one clearinghouse for information on emerging and existing community networks. With a little research, you might find that you have a community network in your neighborhood that you can use right now.
If not, Community Broadband Networks also provides resources on how you can start a community network in your neighborhood. You can check out their Resources page for information on how to work with your city or state. You will also find success stories of people who fought the incumbents and won. After reading their stories, you will know that getting reasonably priced, reliable internet access is for real and that it could happen for you. I know it can because I have it.
The only thing that stands between you and the doorway out of private ISP monopolies is your political will.