“Our DNA is rooted in serving rural, hard-to-reach areas,” said United Communications CEO William Bradford in an interview with Telecompetitor. “We’ve built fiber to the trailer park and fiber to the mansion… Unserved can look a wide variety of ways… The impact of not having broadband in your life is severe, no matter who you are.”
Bradford purchased what was then United Telephone in 2011, a rural phone company founded more than 75 years ago to bring telephone service to unserved rural areas. His first order of business (after changing the name to United Communications) was to upgrade the organization’s infrastructure and start bringing internet services to its footprint of mostly rural customers.
Today, United serves 70,000 middle-Tennessee homes with internet service and will reach a total of 80,000 homes by year’s end. More than 25,000 locations will be newly connected United broadband customers in 2023, with expansion funded by both revenues and grants.
The United network includes more than 3,600 route miles of fiber covering portions of eight middle-Tennessee counties (Bedford, Davidson, Franklin, Marshall, Maury, Rutherford, Williamson, and Wilson). A small portion of United customers in hard-to-reach areas are served by United’s fixed wireless assets (less than 10%).
Organic growth for United through reinvested revenues was relatively slow until 2018 when Middle Tennessee Electric (MTE) decided that the quickest path to serve its own footprint of unserved or underserved locations with better broadband would be to become an investor and majority owner of United Communications.
Much of United’s customer base was already in MTE’s footprint and United’s leadership agreed to roll out broadband services to all of MTE’s communities.
The infusion of capital from MTE came at a time when demand was outpacing United’s ability to serve, said Bradford. MTE’s investment would enable United to serve more communities faster, thereby helping to bridge the digital divide in Middle Tennessee.
The conviction to serve the unserved has become the driver to expansion and growth for United. Bradford calls it the organization’s “outside-in strategy.” United identifies unserved areas, as well as neighboring communities that it can serve, to help make a business case for the overall deployment.
Bradford explains that these connecting communities often are competitive, with multiple gigabit speed internet providers. With net promoter scores in the 80s, United uses customer service, not price, as a differentiator. Pricing is competitive, but the company doesn’t compete primarily on price.
United looks for enthusiasm from communities in which it plans to build, served or unserved. Community outreach meetings are held to gauge support before expansion.
Earlier this year, United Communications formally launched Project UNITE. The company got together with MTE and Duck River Electric to apply for and win $53.4 million from the state of Tennessee to make high-speed broadband available to 14,000 underserved locations in middle Tennessee using fiber or wireless.
United will contribute $14 million to the project and an additional $10 million will come from county governments for a total infrastructure investment of over $77 million.
“When we started going after grants, we admittedly started with small projects, applied, won, and then made sure we overdelivered to build a reputation as an organization that finished projects ahead of schedule, under budget, and connecting lots of folks,” said Bradford. “As the programs have gotten bigger, and we deliver, we come in with credibility.”
Ambitious Deployment Goals
To date, United Communications has reached more than 20,000 homes that previously were without rural broadband. Another 14,000 of United’s planned 40,000 connections in 2024 are slated to be to the underserved. Project UNITE will reach its goal in 2025 of 100% service to unserved middle-Tennesseans by connecting approximately 5,000 unserved homes.
“We are very focused on getting to all the unserved . . . by 2025, but while we are, we will be passing by neighborhoods, many new,” explained Bradford. “In our footprint, there are 15,000 homes being built a year, so we’re able to both serve the unserved and build a business case to serve them by offsetting the spend with a build that has balanced density.”