37 A PARTNERSHIP BUILT ON TRUST CHAPTER TWO HELPING TELECOM CO-OPS THRIVE AMID DEREGULATION In 1996, the telecom world was turned upside down. The Telecommuni- cations Act injected competition into what had been a highly regulated industry. That created new opportunities — and new challenges — for rural telecoms in broadband, telephone and television. Like other regional Bell companies, U S WEST favored the lucrative metropolitan markets and had little interest in investing in rural areas. It was a familiar story — and rural telecoms played their usual role of stepping up to fill the gap. Paul Bunyan Communications is based in Bemidji, Minnesota, but it served the rural area around the town like a donut. CEO and General Manager Gary Johnson saw firsthand how little effort U S WEST put into upgrading its lines. With deregulation, the co-op, with only 8,000 members, decided to enter the town of 12,000. “With the Telecom Act, we now had an opportunity, so we took it and overbuilt Bemidji with our own network, up to every house,” says Johnson, who also serves on the NISC Board. “Financially, it was a great move to grow the company. But what’s been most fun to watch and what’s most striking is how it changed us culturally in how we think and how we operate.” Paul Bunyan continued to expand and built a fiber optic infrastructure that provides superfast gigabit internet speed throughout its service area. It offers PBTV Everywhere — Paul Bunyan television on tablets, smart- phones or computers — as well as whole-home DVR. NISC software has been critical as Paul Bunyan forges ahead with new technology. For example, if a customer wants to add a specialty network and watch a show that evening, NISC’s SwitchTalk2® allows customer service representatives to make the change swiftly and easily. Many other cooperatives gained new territory when U S WEST (which was purchased by Qwest Communications International, which was then bought by CenturyLink) decided to pull out of rural towns and put their networks up for sale in the wake of deregulation. Some co-ops doubled or tripled in size virtually overnight, and the U S WEST customer data needed to be quickly converted to the co-op’s billing system. “We were working nights and weekends,” recalls Tom Materi, Manager of Telecom Support, who was with NCDC at the time. “The data we were receiving from U S WEST wasn’t necessarily clean.” Paul Bunyan now serves about 33,000 customers over 5,000 square miles. “As we’ve grown and pushed down new avenues, NISC has been very responsive to adding features — some at our request and some before we asked,” says Johnson. “They’ve been very good at keeping up with the changes in our industry.” Gary Johnson, CEO and General Manager of Paul Bunyan Communications in Bemidji, Minnesota.