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Case Study: Northeast Louisiana Telephone Company

When federal agencies set out to expand broadband deeper into the nation’s rural areas as part of the economic stimulus program, the Northeast Louisiana Telephone Company (NELTC) was probably what they had in mind. Located in the rural town of Collinston – with 800 telephone voice customers, along with some cable TV and DSL/Internet subscribers, scattered over a 260 square mile area – NELTC has been a small company facing some big decisions. Much has changed since Mike George’s grandparents helped found the company more than six decades ago. George, who is now NELTC’s Chief Financial Officer, says that he has long been thinking about what that “next-generation” is going to be. “We saw the way things were going, our landline business was dropping a little due to cellphones, we had not much Internet and our current cable plant is an old coax analog system that was actually old when we bought the equipment,” says George. “So we were getting to the point where we had to do something major or shut that part of it down.” About five years ago, George and his colleagues at NELTC began making their move. They joined the Fiber-to-the-Home Council, used the Council’s resources to become more familiar with the process of upgrading to FTTH, and then started planning for the future. “We had been hearing about fiber and what it could do at the old Supercomm show, but of course it was way out of reach financially for us,” he says. “Then the price of fiber and equipment started coming down. And it kind of turned into a no brainer.”With the help of information gained from their Council membership, the company drew up a plan to get fiber into every one of its customers’ homes. They went to the U.S. Rural Utilities Service to get a loan, but couldn’t make it work out.Then, in rapid fashion, came the recession, the Recovery Act and the broadband stimulus programs aimed at expanding connectivity in underserved areas. “When the stimulus package came out, we already had the plan, much of the work was already done. This made the application easier because we already had a lot of it figured out,” says George.“As I like to say, timing is everything.” To boost its chances even further, the company also attended nearly every one of a series of members-only webinars the FTTH Council hosted in 2009 to help its members understand and participate in the broadband stimulus application process. “When you are going through an unknown like that you try to find all the information available to fill in the blanks, and those webinars were very helpful to ensuring that we had all the information we needed,” says George. And, in January 2010, the planning and preparing paid off, as Northeast Lousiana Telephone was awarded a $4.3 million grant and $8.1 million loan to build an FTTH network to serve its regulated territory and provide television and high-speed Internet service to underserved areas beyond its current customer base. When completed, the network will not only provide 20 Mbps up-and-down to meet the community’s current broadband needs, but because it is FTTH the bandwidth provided can be increased over time to meet future requirements without having to swap out the installed fiber. George knows that means a lot to his community and its future. “Our residents here in rural Northeast Louisiana will have a telecommunications service that is as robust as any in the country – and will be able to meet bandwidth demands far into the future. That’s the beauty of going all fiber.” For its part, NELTC will likely double the number of access lines it now serves. And this small telephone company will morph into a 21st century communications provider, providing next-generation connectivity. George credits the FTTH Council with helping him get there. “Our membership in the Council has made it a lot easier to stay ahead of the curve, to know what technologies are coming out and what other people are doing. And that’s always a good thing in a business like this.”