Since about 2000, the story of broadband and cellular access for older and more rural Americans is a tale of success. Whereas only 42 percent of rural citizens once were Internet users, that number rose to about 78 percent over fifteen years, according to studies conducted by the Pew Research Center.
But at least in the Central and western New York State regions—which includes approximately fifty cities from Buffalo to Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton, and northern Pennsylvania—the story has a surprising author: Paul Griswold, CEO of Finger Lakes Technologies Group Inc. (FLTG). Griswold is the fourth-generation president of this family-owned firm, a local telephone company bought by his great-grandfather in 1920.
Few companies have remained in family hands for this long, as farmers have moved from dialing on ten-digit, rotatory phones connected by copper phone wires to checking weather apps and commodity pricing on their smartphones connected to rural cell towers that reach the Internet through fiber-optic cables.
Griswold shares credit with his company and some key customers. The critical, larger customers are banks, hospitals, and educational institutions like Cornell University, the University of Rochester, and its hospital system. The company is also a VoIP partner with Cisco Systems.
This is quite different from Griswold’s great-grandfather’s phone company. Perhaps, though, the same things that drove what was originally called the Ontario & Trumansburg Telephone Companies—a telephone service to rural customers that Ma Bell (Bell Telephone Co.) overlooked—are what drive it today. It’s always been about reliable, best-in-class communications access.
Arguably, Griswold’s father and grandfather didn’t have to deal with changes as fast as they’ve come in the past twenty years. However, they did face challenges he hasn’t, like the ice storm of 1940. “It was massive,” Griswold says. “There were so many wrecked lines; it flattened our outside plant. We lost revenues for more than one year, but we rebuilt.”
And they keep on building. The twenty-first-century fiber-optic network, in fact, takes advantage of the FLTG legacy of phone lines on poles and in public and private right-of-ways. The firm also has a breadth of administrative capabilities that are needed to establish, expand, and manage such a system.
That said, the path to 2017 was hardly clear and sure. “We modernized all along, despite the fact we were rural,” Griswold says. There were once scores of family-owned, independent phone companies across the state. Over time, many sold out because expensive adaptations to technological challenges were required and not everyone was willing to take it on.
Modernization seen on the user side—from rotary dial to push-button phones, and later a dial-up ISP that graduated to fiber optics—was met with the evolution of technology that Griswold provided. However, modernizing a system that currently covers 2,500 miles is no small decision. Installing fiber-optic cable costs between $25,000 and $30,000 per mile, which can be hard to make profitable. “Towns within FLTG’s rural markets are 15-20 miles apart,” Griswold says. “You have to connect the businesses to each neighboring town.” This network, funded entirely by FLTG, needed large customers to get things started.
The two biggest catalysts to FLTG modernization were Cisco and Cornell. “We started selling Cisco products in 2000,” Griswold says, sharing how the quality of the company’s engineers has been an asset in building that partnership. The company was the first in the state to install Cisco IP Telephony Systems, which allows flexible telephone solutions for customers.
Just as important, Cornell needed a network to connect remote research facilities for its agriculture school.
When FLTG inked the Ivy League university’s multimillion-dollar deal, it transformed the company—and the surrounding community. Businesses in Ithaca, New York, where Cornell is based, got access to a world-class fiber network that was affordable thanks to the university installation. The same thing happened later for the residents of Rochester, when the University of Rochester and its hospital affiliate needed fiber-optic connectivity for multiple buildings spread throughout numerous cities.
The rapid pace of change in connective technologies, including the advent of wireless, isn’t daunting to Griswold. A confirmed gadget geek, he’s personally an early adopter. “I am the first person to get things like the Apple Watch and iPhones,” he says. “I like to see how it works and how easy it is to understand.”
He is also attentive to technological changes and details that affect his business. It’s part of what enables FLTG to evolve in sync with the IT capabilities of large and small customers, including using the company’s fiber network to serve far-flung cell towers. In 2016, the company added more than ten cities to its network, and the growth plans for 2017 are just as aggressive while other providers are retracting.
Another way FLTG leverages something from the past into technologies of the present is the company’s Finger Lakes Technologies Group Park. Sprawling over eight hundred acres in Romulus, New York, the retired Seneca Army Depot includes sixty-four blast-hardened, ground-level, earth-berm storage bunkers that were originally built during the Cold War era. The company now leases them out for colocated data centers and warehousing functions.
Turning something from a past era into a modern asset is something Griswold and FLTG know how to do—probably because he and the company have the right attitude. “I love change,” he says. “It keeps us adaptable to the new technologies that are coming out.”