From Phone to Fiber: How One Company is Connecting Parts of Rural Ohio
“I think we’re providing big-city access to rural people.”
by Jessica Denson, Director of Communications
Bascom, OH. (August 28, 2019) - When Pauline O’Connor wrote to Connected Nation earlier this year, she made it clear just how disconnected she felt.
“Having lived in the ‘Bermuda triangle of communications’ running from south of McCutchenville, east to Sycamore and north on State Road 53 to Country Road 6, I was thrilled beyond words when I saw the Bascom Phone Company [Communications] drilling in fiber optic lines in front of my house,” the email said.
All O’Connor wanted to do was thank those responsible for giving her a new option.
Employees at Bascom Communications take on many roles including digging trenches to lay fiber lines
“Soon I will have high-speed internet service, never available before by any provider, at a very reasonable cost,” she continued. “This will enable me to communicate with my business from home and not require a 10-mile drive to my office just to look at documents or fax something. Thank you Bascom and whoever aided in any necessary funding.”
It’s something Connected Nation hears time and time again via email, over the phone, by letter, and out in the field: We have to go somewhere else to even get a connection.
Sometimes it’s a parent upset that they have to drive their kids to a fast-food restaurant to do their homework; other times it is a small-business owner or agricultural producer who can’t grow without access. The good news for O’Connor is that a small Ohio company has been quietly connecting rural residents in a northwestern corner of the state.
“In the 2003 timeframe, we started deploying fiber in the area,” said Nate Brickner, General Manager, Bascom Communications. “We were one of the earliest adopters to start doing this. Lots of people talk about the urban-rural divide but we’re trying to do our best to make sure it’s the opposite. I think we’re providing big-city access to rural people.”
Expanding Access in Rural Ohio
Bascom Communications started out as a traditional telephone company in 1906. Nearly 50 years later, in 1953, the company’s leadership decided to become a nonprofit mutual cooperative. That move would make it possible to expand into new territory. Money was now being directly reinvested into the company and there was no longer the worry of having to constantly increase the profit margin.
Brickner, who grew up in Bascom and attended Hopewell-Loudon High School there, says that change made 50 years ago has allowed staff today to focus on meeting the unique needs and sometimes challenging requirements for rural communities.
"Lots of people talk about the urban-rural divide but we’re trying to do our best to make sure it’s the opposite. " ~Nate Brickner, General Manager, Bascom Communications
“The build Pauline contacted you about is a 4-plus-mile build and will only pass about 50 homes,” Brickner said. “We’re also doing a 30-mile build that passes just under 400 homes. If you’re doing the math, that’s just about 12 homes per mile—that makes the economy of scale pretty difficult and that’s a pretty good number compared to other rural places.”
Located about an hour south of Toledo and 25 minutes east of Findlay, the area Bascom Communications covers is mostly rural. The entire county has just a little more than 55,000 people. That’s only about 6 percent of the entire population of Columbus, the state’s largest city.
“When we began creating broadband maps in Ohio for the first time, in 2008, Bascom was already one of the few companies providing fiber to the premise (FTTP),” said Chip Spann, the Director of Engineering and Technical Services for Connected Nation. “I recall reading articles as early as 2003 about their network, which was to include the ‘triple-play’ service (video, voice and data) on a technology platform developed by Optical Solutions (FiberPath 500). At the time, if I recall correctly, Bascom was only serving parts of Fostoria and Tiffin with an asynchronous transfer mode (ATM), gigabit passive optical network (GPON).”
Bascom has since overbuilt all its existing copper with fiber and has some fixed wireless available for outlying areas. At last count, the company has about 800 customers using wireless and another 1,750 connected via fiber lines.
“I’ve had the pleasure of personally watching this network expand over the last decade,” Spann continued. “Connected Nation started mapping Bascom’s fiber network in 2010, and we have watched them grow little by little. In that time, I have heard nothing but praise from the local citizens in the area.”
Brickner points to the hard work of his staff, which numbers just 14, and whom he says “wear many hats to get the job done.” One day they may be digging holes, the next day changing the entire route of a fiber project. He jokes that all the hard work has paid off, and he’s since seen a shift in the attitudes of residents who have gotten used to having good internet service.
“They can lose their electricity or water and be somewhat patient until it’s fixed, but if the WiFi isn’t back on quickly people lose their minds,” he said laughing. “It’s amazing. People can sit in the dark on their battery-operated devices because it helps them feel connected, even when the lights are out.”
They’re Not the Only Ones
A Bascom Communications employee hooks up a home to broadband in Northwest Ohio
Brickner says lots of small internet service providers (ISP’s) are doing what Bascom is: providing better access than some bigger companies can for rural communities. He credits that to living with and working near those they serve.
“We can’t hide behind a phone tree in another state or country,” Brickner said. “If we don’t provide good service, everyone is going to know pretty fast. Workers and leaders at any rural company are going to be held directly accountable.
“We’re going to see our customers out and about. We’re going to see them at church, at the grocery store, and when we take our kids to school. I even serve my grandparents, and I don’t want to make my grandma mad at me,” he adds laughing.
He says rural areas sometimes get a bad rap—as if they’re always behind the curve. But Brickner points out that rural companies must take innovative steps to thrive and that many of Ohio’s small providers collaborate on ways to improve their services and get better pricing. Trying to get through red tape may be the biggest obstacle for rural companies.
“Think about this for a second—there’s only 14 of us here. We don’t have a massive staff and, as I said, all of us have to wear many hats,” said Brickner. “As we’re trying to do these builds, we have to make a good business case, find supplies, lay out a work plan, and so much. Then you add this report or that permit and this permit, and it almost gets overwhelming for a smaller company like ours.”
Brickner says he and his staff would rather use that time to focus on what’s next and think about how to expand their networks to include more rural customers.
“We just hooked up a lady the other day that came from a large city in the state,” he said. “Now she works for Amazon from home. She thought it was funny that she had to move into this smaller, rural area to get the kind of connectivity she really needed to finally work from her house.”
It’s a success story that is exciting to new customers like Pauline O’Connor, who recently shared a follow-up email with Connected Nation:
“Hello, just a quick update to broadband. The Bascom Phone Co. [Communications] is scheduled to complete the home installation of the first broadband service available in my rural area of Tiffin, OH. The company has been very efficient and has great customer service that keeps you informed of the progress. The previous work crews have been professional, courteous and don't leave a mess of restoration work for the homeowner, after the Fiber Optic is drilled in. [I’m] looking forward to joining the 21st century next week.”
To learn more about Bascom Communications and their latest progress head to their website at https://bascomtelephone.com/.
Residents aren’t the only ones utilizing Bascom Communications’ services. The company was recently asked to help improve Seneca County’s 911 services. Emergency management needed a system to handle more data.
Bascom’s staff leveraged some existing facilities to save the county money while building a dark fiber ring that can be used for NextGen 911. It connects emergency management facilities across jurisdictions and districts to help more people in the county and improve response times.
This collaboration earned Bascom Outstanding Business of the Year by the Tiffin Seneca Economic Partnership.