Local Telco Delivers Larger-Than-Life Broadband to Home of Paul Bunyan
It’s the first city on the Mississippi, the curling capital of the US, and home to America’s second-most photographed tourist attraction. But these aren’t the only items of note for the lakeside town of Bemidji, Minnesota. Brian Bissonette—the former voice of Drive-Time on Oldies 98 and the 16-years-and-running color commentator for the Beavers, Bemidji State University’s Division I men’s hockey team—has also built up somewhat of a celebrity status. Beyond those two claims to fame, Brian is also the marketing director of Paul Bunyan Communications (PBC), a telecommunications co-op on the forefront of innovation.
In an interview with Telco Americana host Steve Gleave, Brian explains that he’s got the best marketing job in Bemidji. Within minutes of the interview, though, you can tell that Brian isn’t just in love with his job. He’s in love with the company and the area it so proudly serves.
Brian and Bemidji
Originally from Minneapolis, Brian came to Bemidji to attend the university. He enrolled in its mass communication program, where he DJ’d for the university’s local radio station. After he graduated, Brian got a job at a local television station. “I pushed the button to start the commercials,” Brian laughed. “I don’t even know if that’s a real job anymore.” Fortunately for Brian, he was rescued from commercial programming within a few months. The professor who had started the university’s radio station decided to start his own radio station, and he wanted to hire Brian as one of his DJs.
Oldies 98 launched in 1991 with Brian as the voice of the Drive-Time segment. He also handled the radio station’s PR and commercials. While he initially knew nothing about oldies music, he grew to enjoy it—which made him love the job even more. As Steve Gleave jokes in the interview, Brian was the “Casey Kasem” of Bemidji.
Radio to Telecom
His radio stardom with Oldies 98 came to end, though, when he decided to take his PR and marketing talents to PBC, a booming telco in the area. “When I started, we had 7,000 or so access lines…every year we’ve expanded,” Brian said in the interview. Of course, Brian had a bit of a learning curve to deal with when he started at PBC. “I didn’t come from the telco industry…I didn’t know about ILECs or CLECs…But that’s good from a marketing perspective,” he explained, noting that most consumers don’t know those terms either.
(As an aside, Brian couldn’t shy away from the radio spotlight for long. As he was getting his telco sea legs, he accepted a side job as the color commentator for Bemidji State University’s men’s hockey team. It’s now his 16th season doing commentary.)
Just as every hockey season brings exciting play-by-plays, every year, PBC achieves exciting results. As Brian explains, the co-op has been steadily expanding into rural and underserved areas. But one of the company’s most significant expansion plays came in 1998-1999, when PBC moved into Bemidji—an area that wasn’t even on the radar for most companies. It was a big risk and a major investment. “Timing is everything, and the timing then was perfect,” Brian said. The company moved into Bemidji as the only phone company offering high-speed Internet, and it didn’t have a legitimate competitor for three years. As Brian explains, the company’s profit margin went from $500,000-$600,000 when he started to more than $11 million today, which has allowed the company “to be on the forefront…to be a leading-edge provider.” Furthermore, those types of monetary gains have enabled the company to “reinvest in our network…and give back our profits to our customers.” (Talk about a co-op living up to what co-ops should be.)
Today, PBC has about 75% of the market share in Bemidji and its surrounding areas, which, as Brian notes, makes it very difficult for competitors to, well, compete. But that type of dominance doesn’t mean PBC is resting on its laurels. Au contraire! The company has a history of innovation, and that’s not changing anytime soon. Recently, PBC announced the launch of Gigazone, a project that—when completed in five to six years—will deliver fiber connectivity throughout a 5,000-square-mile area. According to Brian, it’s going to be a Google Fiber-type network in terms of capacity and bandwidth. “When this is all said and done, our members…will have one of the world’s most robust communication networks.”
While Gigazone sounds like quite the endeavor, Brian explains that PBC has been preparing for this for years. “We’ve been replacing copper networks since 2004 with our fiber-to-the-home project,” he said, adding that the project was part of an effort to “future-proof” the company’s systems. According to Brian, roughly 98% of PBC’s network is now fiber-to-the-home. So, the vast majority of the service area is already prepped for Gigazone, which will enable users to “download a full-length HD movie in two seconds.” In Brian’s words, it’s going to be “upfront and accurate.” PBC is so confident in its Gigazone project that it has a website that—in addition to offering a video and project details—features network speed comparisons.
Rural Minnesota. Urban Connectivity
Bemidji has its fair share of draws—from its rich history and pristine landscape to its Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statue. Now, the city can tack gigabit speeds onto its list of alluring qualities. It’s clear in the interview that Brian adores the Bermidji area, and he’s convinced any visitors would love it, too. “This area is so laid-back…a lot of people like to get away, and this is the place [to do that].” But just because the area is laid-back doesn’t mean the Internet should be, and thanks to PBC, there’s no sprawl in sight when it comes to Internet connectivity and accessibility.
[Photo courtesy startribune.com]