Gervais Telephone Company
Since establishing its first phone lines between rural farm families in 1914, Gervais Telephone Company has continued to deliver communication services to a portion of rural Oregon. This small cooperative, located at a transportation junction between Salem and Portland, may even boast the first FTTH installation west of the Rockies. But that’s not what motivates its nine employees. Rather, they are focused on any opportunity to plant fiber in any nook and cranny that will allow future expansion of their existing 32 square mile territory.
Hearing the company’s history is reminiscent of Andy Griffith's Mayberry, where you could just pick up the phone and ask Sarah to ring up anyone in town. But through the 1930s, that was pretty much the case. According to John Hoffmann, president of Gervais Telephone, the switchboard was part of the local confectionary, where a soda jerk was also the area's telephone operator delivering phone service and ice cream sodas with equal dedication. "We recently tracked down that old switchboard and pictured it in our newsletter," says Hoffmann. "A lady named Norma Cutsforth came into our office and said she worked behind the soda counter and had to place calls on that switchboard whenever it rang. It was great to meet Gervais Telephone's original operator, or at least one of them." The company's ILEC is restricted to about 800 homes within its rural service area, comprised mainly of agricultural communities that produce mainly hops, filberts and grass seed. The company also established a CLEC to operate in the adjoining town of Woodburn, providing additional voice and data services to about 20,000 potential business and residential customers. Two years ago, Gervais Telephone applied for stimulus funding through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act to take FTTH services past two fire stations and an elementary school southwest of Gervais. The company received a 50/50 loan/grant and lit the fiber cable just 3-1/2 months after breaking ground in October 2010. Finding opportunities to bury more fiber cable has proven to be the life-blood of Gervais Telephone. One such opportunity arose a few years ago. The company needed to expand broadband services to Brooks Elementary School, about nine miles south in Qwest territory. An employee, Todd Berning, heard that Northwest Natural Gas Company was putting in a new gas line and thought fiber might be pulled through the old gas pipes to the school. "We approached Northwest Natural several times, but they were not inclined to allow us to use the pipes," says Hoffmann. "Then I invited the brand new school superintendent to go with me to Portland and give it another try. As it turned out, the superintendent and the Northwest Natural executive had both been involved with military aviation and immediately began reminiscing about airplanes. After about an hour of talking about their military experiences, we all spent ten minutes looking at a map. Northwest Natural ended up donating the gas pipe to the school district and we leased it for 99 years at a cost of one dollar." Gervais Telephone was an early member of the FTTH Council, and Hoffmann credits the relationship with helping them promote the value of fiber to builders and developers. The company has since shared papers and project documents with other council members, as well as its experience with applying for stimulus funding. "Being a small co-op in a big company world usually means you need to have an edge, and the council helps us maintain that edge," says Hoffmann. "The rest boils down to creative thinking, personal touch, and quick response that we can offer our customers - something most big companies can't offer to rural areas."