Utopia, as described by Sir Thomas More, the man who originated the term in the early 16th century, is an imaginary place of few laws, great natural abundance, and an absence of poverty and want. We still don't know how to cure poverty and want. But in a western U.S. desert, a utopia of sorts is taking shape for broadband users who would like to get their phone, television, and Internet services from the providers of their choice.
As it turns out, this Utopia, known formally as the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency, promises to be just that, a broadband utopia. And it is very much a real place, encompassing 14 cities in northeastern Utah. It delivers to each of its 3000 subscribers high-speed Internet access, telephony, and television programming through a fiber-optic cable at data rates that now reach 30 megabits per second. Soon, service providers there will be offering speeds of 50 and even 100 Mb/s. That's enough to download a 2-hour movie in about 6 minutes, 10 to 20 times as fast as the typical U.S. cable or digital subscriber line connection, 6 times as fast as Verizon Communications Inc.'s much-publicized fiber-to-the-home service (called FiOS) and twice as fast as the new DSL now being introduced in Europe by France Telecom and others.
The yellow-orange deserts, green cacti, and snowy white mountains of Utah's Wasatch Valley have been fertile ground for innovation since at least 1969, when a message-processing computer was installed on the campus of the University of Utah to serve as the fifth node on the Arpanet, the ancestor of today's Internet. Since then, the valley has spawned hundreds of high-tech companies, including Novell, WordPerfect, and the graphics firm Evans & Sutherland Computer.
The valley is dotted with some 30 cities, most of whose inhabitants are descendants of the Mormons who rode in on wagons in the 19th century. Today Interstate 15 connects the dots, and if you avoid rush hour and snowstorms, it's a 6-hour drive from Utopia's northernmost outpost at Tremonton to its southern tip, Cedar City [see map, " Broadband Corridor"]. Three-quarters of Utah's 2.5 million people live in the valley, but no single municipality has more than a small fraction. While Salt Lake City is the best known, its 185 000 residents constitute only about 10 percent of the valley's population, and it's not even twice the size of the second-largest municipality, its neighbor, West Valley City.
Utopia's promise is as vast as the nearby Great Salt Lake. In fact, if Utopia's data bits were liters of mountain water, the flow into one household connection would be enough to slake the thirst and bathe the bodies of half the people in the United States, whereas DSL could barely serve just Utah, and an old-fashioned dial-up connection would be enough for just a small town like Orem, population 84 000, the first of the 14 cities to be connected to Utopia.
What do you do with all this bandwidth? First off, you do just what you were doing before--only faster, better, and cheaper. Cheaper, of course, gets everyone's attention, especially people like Orem housewife Wendy Seamons de Hoyos. She and her husband, Ben, switched to one of Utopia's economy packages because it cost just US $44 a month, compared with the $69 per month they had been paying for DSL from Qwest Communications International Inc., the Denver-based incumbent regional phone provider. The cheaper package caps the bandwidth at 15 Mb/s, but that's still 10 times as fast as what Qwest had provided. At the new speed, de Hoyos says, Web pages "jump on-screen instantly."
The need for even more bandwidth will be apparent when new, data-hungry applications come onstream in the next few years. Most television today is a low-resolution digital version of the analog service of yore, but it's poised to soon bulk up its bandwidth requirements sevenfold for high-definition technology. Telephone calls will soon be as high-fidelity as FM radio, in stereo; that service, too, will require a fatter data pipe. Videoconferencing, still often a herky-jerky pantomime, will finally be easy and beautiful, experts say, and this will consume many megabits per second. In fact, high-bandwidth media will be pervasive--in online shopping, distance learning, telemedicine--you name it.
And in practice, it won't be so very hard to use 100 Mb/s. Utopia customers will be able to order the full-bore service, getting it all in a single, supersonic data feed, but most of them will prefer to divide this into separate streams. To split out one high-definition TV channel for the parents, another for the older children, and yet another for the youngsters, for example, at about 20 Mb/s each, would take more than half the feed. Reserve another 10 or so for high-definition video telephony, and there's only 30 Mb/s left for regular Internet use. This provision of television, Internet, and telephony services is called the triple play of consumer telecommunications.
Businesses stand to benefit from Utopia the most. A 20-employee accounting firm in the town of Murray now pays Utopia $150 per month for a 30-Mb/s Internet connection, down from the $650 per month it had previously paid for a 1.5-Mb/s line. And the impending 100-Mb/s speed is just the start. Utopia officials say they designed a lot of slack into the network, so that it can move up easily to 1-gigabit-per-second service over the next decade; indeed, business customers will soon be able to request this level.
The peaceful coexistence of multiple service providers is another thing that distinguishes Utopia. Because Utopia sends TV programming as Internet packets, indistinguishable from e-mail, Web pages, and everything else, it puts a huge reservoir of bandwidth at the disposal of its providers. By contrast, Verizon's FiOS, a sort of DSL on steroids, reserves most of an optical fiber's capacity for television, which means that FiOS customers who go to the open Internet, instead of to Verizon, for television programs have to cut into their Internet broadband, which is capped at 15 Mb/s.
Verizon's FiOS TV Service is second to none, offering 20 high-definition channels. By the end of 2006, it is expected to give 6 million homes some much-needed competition to the local cable provider. But that competition--two strong providers--may be all that those communities ever see. The de Hoyos family, on the other hand, can pick their TV service from a potentially long list of companies that vie equally for their dollars. "The open service-provider network model finally gives us a fair playing field to compete on," says Jon Hansen, CEO of MStar.Net LLC, based in Murray, Utah, which offers the triple play to Utopia customers for less than $100 per month.