[Article originally published in Oregon Business Magazine, written by Stu Watson]
For some telecom companies, large population centers get all the attention. Frontier Communications, one of the top five local phone and broadband providers in the country, proudly emphasizes its service to smaller, rural communities like Coos Bay, Brookings, Myrtle Creek and Silverton.
“That’s because even though we’re a nearly $5 billion corporation, we’re very much homegrown and local,” says Andrew Morrison, Frontier’s regional sales manager for commercial sales in Oregon.
“We’re very nimble. We don’t make all of the decisions out of Connecticut [corporate headquarters in Stamford]. We make many of them in, and specifically for, the communities we serve.”
As it has grown its Oregon presence, Frontier has acquired local phone systems — with their copper and fiber transmission lines — in several communities that form a doughnut around Portland, including Beaverton, Hillsboro, Tualatin, Tigard, Wilsonville, Boring and Damascus, in addition to southern coastal Oregon.
Delivering voice and data, however, is just one facet of a business model focused on the needs of Oregonians, wherever they live.
“It’s easy to go for the big fish, but then you’re not serving these outlying communities,” Morrison says. “Frontier is rolling out the red carpet for our smaller communities.”
In those communities, the local school system is often the largest employer with the most challenging communication needs. Frontier has positioned itself as the telecom provider that best understands those needs and brings the complete package of hardware, networking and finance to help create solutions that fit limited budgets.
Frontier, for example, proactively reaches out to school districts that may qualify for federal funding (E-rate funding) and works with them to develop a plan for a communications system that best fits their needs and utilizes the most available federal funding.
Created by federal legislation, the E-rate program taps the Universal Service Fund to help finance technology upgrades for smaller school districts and libraries with limited resources.
Morrison says E-rate has recently allocated over $2 billion in support for classroom wireless infrastructure.
Designed to help equalize access to technology for more widely dispersed, lower-income rural populations, E-rate can cover anywhere from 20% to 90% of qualifying system costs.
Other telecom companies may dismiss smaller communities as drive-by territory, but Morrison says Frontier sees nothing but opportunity in a focused quest to bring high-speed Internet and telephone systems to schools, libraries, health care facilities and local government all over Oregon.
It starts with quality hardware from preferred providers Mitel, Avaya, Ruckus, Aruba, Cisco and Adtran. Frontier’s deep network of skilled technicians, creative financing and familiarity with the federal E-rate program bring it home. All combined, it brings significant advantages to these communities.
“We’re doing a ton of work rolling hardware out to communities that don’t necessarily connect to our network,” Morrison says.
He says this past summer Frontier technicians completed system upgrades in five smaller regional school districts located in areas ranging from Wahkiakum in southern Washington to Jefferson, Brookings and Salem in Oregon.
“All these school districts are looking at wireless and telephone systems to connect their children with the Internet and the world around them,” Morrison says.
At the historic Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Frontier helped replace a 15-year-old system — a dinosaur in telecom years — with a new 172-unit Mitel system. Among other features, the new system provides two-way linkage (“twinning” in telecom speak) between the desktop system and individual cell phones.
“Frontier met our customization requirements and helped our employees through the learning curve that comes with any new technology,” says Amanda Ward, academic principal at Chemawa.
An application called iView immediately alerts Frontier technicians of any functionality issues with the Chemawa system. Such alerts often lead to a long-distance fix.
“Two-thirds of repairs can be done remotely,” Morrison says.
But Morrison notes that Frontier’s local presence — central offices and technicians residing in communities across a broad Oregon service area — allows it to respond quickly to requests for new installs or repairs to existing equipment.
Jason Mocca, Frontier’s general manager for Marion County, says, “It’s reassuring — to us and the school — to know that six technicians with an average of over 15 years of experience live within an hour of the school.”
Morrison says that deep and visible local involvement “is a key differentiator from any company [he’s] been involved with.”
Because each community is different, local needs may require creative solutions. For example, Morrison cites a recent system upgrade for the three-school system in Jefferson, a small farm community west of I-5 between Salem and Albany.
“The district had set aside funds but didn’t have quite enough,” Morrison says. “We offered a creative financing option to make sure they could get the replacement they needed, which included Mitel phone systems and critical 911 emergency telephone hardware services. We did what was needed to get them the equipment they required.”
Morrison says the Jefferson system is similar to those in many of the communities Frontier serves. It links to a network operated by another company.
“We don’t need to own the wires,” Morrison says. “Even though schools and other institutions may not be located in our service footprint, we want them to appreciate the technology we can provide, and help them understand why they would want to go with Frontier and not someone else.”