Founded in 1906, Jonesboro, Arkansas-based Ritter Communications continues to build on its legacy of serving underserved communities by aggressively deploying fiber in its four-state footprint across Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas.
We talked to Ritter CEO Alan Morse, about that strategy and about the company’s “Right by You” pledge to do what is right for its employees and the nearly 50,000 customers it serves across more than 135 communities.
The company has come a long way since its founder Ernest Ritter installed a small telephone switch in the back of his general store to connect the store, the house, his ice plant and other businesses in his small hometown of Marked Tree, Arkansas.
According to company lore the neighbors asked, ‘How do we get one of those?’ Mr. Ritter installed a switchboard in Marked Tree, and with that, a communications company was born, said Morse, who joined Ritter in 2014 and was named CEO in 2019.
That entrepreneurial spirit endures in the company’s readiness to try new things and introduce new products.
From Legacy Telco to Modern Fiber Provider
The Ritter family shepherded the company through decades of growth and acquisitions, but by 2018 it became clear that Ritter Communications needed additional capital to realize its full potential.
The family launched a search for a private equity partner in 2019, and ultimately chose Grain Management. Now in its fifth generation of ownership, E. Ritter and Company still holds a minority stake in Ritter Communications.
“Grain has been the perfect fit for Ritter Communications because the firm works exclusively with telecom and fiber infrastructure-related businesses. We were looking for an investor, but also a partner, and Grain has really been that for us,” said Morse.
Prior to partnering with Grain, Ritter had self-funded its fiber deployments, averaging roughly $25 million a year in capital spending, said Morse. Following the Grain investment, fiber deployments have accelerated dramatically.
By 2024, the company will complete what would have been close to 20 years’ worth of capital spending in a span of only five years. This rapid deployment has been funded by a variety of sources, including support from Grain and the Ritter family, bank loans, and ARPA-funded state grants for broadband deployment.
Morse noted that Ritter Communications has been awarded $70 million in grants to connect un- and under-served communities in Arkansas and Tennessee. Between its grants and self-funding, “we will have invested close to a half billion dollars, which has helped us to do some pretty amazing things,” said Morse.
In 2021, the company launched a new fiber-to-the-home business unit called RightFiber, which has delivered state-of-the-art broadband to roughly 30 markets across the company’s footprint, with new neighborhoods launching monthly.
By the end of 2024, RightFiber will connect to approximately 100,000 homes from the fast-growing Northwest Arkansas communities of Rogers and Centerton to historically overlooked small towns like Oil Trough and Humphrey; all on a new fiber network, with speeds up to 5 Gig.
Ritter continues to bring RightFiber to communities in its existing footprint, and Morse says there are several hundred thousand homes within close proximity to its network that the company can connect in the coming years.
The company has plans to develop underserved markets in nearby states as well. Some of this growth may be funded by the federal BEAD program, according to Morse.
Evolution of Fiber Services
In 2022, Ritter completed the upgrade of its legacy hybrid-fiber-coax (HFC) cable network to DOCSIS 3.1, enabling the company’s long-time customers in Northeast Arkansas and West Tennessee to get 1 Gig internet services. The company is already planning to double the speed of its HFC internet service next year.
Morse says the company’s pace of growth shows no sign of slowing. Since 2019 they have also launched business-focused services in 21 new markets across the Mid-South, connecting over 10,000 small, medium and large business locations to their dense fiber network.