Smaller than rivals, telecom company thrives on service
Nobleboro — Lincolnville Telephone Co. is something of an anomaly: a minnow in the ocean of whale-sized telecommunications companies; it is nonetheless a sizable local employer and a significant player in the Maine telecom market.
With 40 to 50 employees, depending on the season, it has around 18,000 total customers, according to President and General Manager Shirley Manning. In addition to regular telephone and conference calling customers, it provides Internet services to 5,000 households and has around 1,000 cable TV subscribers.
Its subsidiaries include Tidewater Telecom, Lincolnville Networks, Coastal Telco and Lincolnville Communications, which provide the services described above to a large chunk of the Midcoast and even beyond. For years, it has been engaged in expanding its fiber optic network and upgrading its services, said Manning.
The firm's first big move toward becoming a modern telecom company came 20 years ago, in 1994. Manning worked with acquaintances at two other small phone companies, one in New Hampshire and one in Vermont, to acquire all of the exchanges owned by GTE in their three states, which the big company was unloading.
When the three smaller companies met with executives from GTE, “We walked into the room and just hit it off,” Manning said. Completing the deal with GTE was not quite that easy, but eventually she and her New England colleagues beat out larger bidders to win the exchanges in their states, some of which they sold to other small companies to help finance the acquisition, Manning said.
As a result of its bold move, Lincolnville Telephone grew by six times at a stroke, she said, adding that the deal gave it resources and manpower to survive and flourish.
After that, things began to take off for the company. In the late 1990s, it built an OC-48 fiber optic system for MBNA, which had just come to the Midcoast and needed a high-speed, redundant network to support its call center operations, Manning said. Lincolnville Telephone had to go through a certification process with AT&T, MBNA's telecommunications provider at the time, and it built a point of presence – an Internet access point – at Lincolnville Beach, she explained.
“It was extraordinary for a small company to serve such a large customer.”
Now, the company provides a network that connects Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport, Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast, Miles Memorial Hospital in Damariscotta and St. Andrew's Home Health & Hospice in Boothbay to facilitate communication among them. It also provides services to Athena Health and Bank of America's call center, both in Belfast.
In 2006 the company received the Governor's Award for Business Excellence from the administration of then-Gov. John Baldacci.
In 2008, Manning bought out the other stockholders to become sole owner of the company.
Another step in the company's technological development that came two or three years ago illustrates one of the company's advantages over larger competitors. A group of residents in a certain neighborhood of Edgecomb only had access to dial-up Internet service and wanted a faster connection, Manning said. The town applied for and received a grant from the state's ConnectME authority, which is charged with helping to upgrade Internet service in underserved parts of Maine.
When a plan to upgrade the service available to the residents fell through because the contracted provider walked away, Manning's company was asked to take on the job. It laid fiber optic cable to each home covered under the grant, building off its existing system in the Boothbay area, she said.
“They went from dial-up to the best connection in the state.”
Whereas a huge service provider might not have been willing to undertake the expense, it was worthwhile for the smaller player to wire just a few homes. This was true in part because ConnectME covered a portion of the cost, but also because the project served as a pilot for fiber to the home, the type of connection the company eventually wants to provide for all of its customers, Manning explained.
In 2012, when GWI, based in Biddeford, bought Midcoast Internet Solutions, Coastal Telco purchased about 600 DSL customers from Midcoast, according to a company press release at the time. Since then, the company has worked to upgrade many of those customers from DSL to fiber to the home.
Last year, Lincolnville Telephone got a $900,000 grant from ConnectME to improve service in the outlying areas of its territory. Since DSL is distance-sensitive, it does not provide a good connection for customers who are too far away from the source, Manning said.
ConnectME will pay for up to half the cost of projects to expand or upgrade Internet service in areas where high-speed connections are not already available, she said. Some of the factors it considers in reviewing proposals are the number of homes to be affected, the cost per home, the type of equipment and the technology to be used.
“I think it's a great thing ConnectME is doing,” said Vice President of Operations Randall Manning, who is Shirley's son. He thinks the state program will help rural Mainers gain access to high-speed fiber optic Internet service sooner than if it were left to market forces alone.
Last year's ConnectME project is nearly complete, Randall said. It laid 122 miles of fiber in parts of Knox, Lincoln and Waldo counties from Bristol to Lincolnville, Jefferson to Appleton, with more to come in the next project. “We're trying to beef up our network,” he said.
In fact, he invested in a more robust network than necessary to meet current demand in the project that is just finishing in order to allow for growth in customers and services, he said.
Most people think of fiber optic cable as just providing a faster connection to the Internet, Randall said. But it also allows for virtually limitless bandwidth, unlike copper wire, meaning not only Internet service, but telephone, video, home automation and other services can all be provided via the same system. And fiber is much less vulnerable to the effects of weather than copper is, he said.
“Everything's going to reduce to an application on our pipe,” Randall said.
In her business, “You either have to grow or you go the other way,” Shirley said.
Growth is certainly in the company's future, but Shirley is clear about what makes her company stand out: its reputation for service. “That's our primary focus here,”' she said.
Looking ahead, she said in five to 10 years, she would like to see the company “thriving and being whatever its customers need, whatever the that technology is.”