Smart Rural Community Served by New Grant and Cooperative Spirit

By Ashley Spinks, Communications Coordinator, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association
March 13, 2018

In Guymon, Okla., public spaces serve an important purpose. Residents of Guymon and surrounding areas need respite from the state’s sometimes harsh climate, and that’s why they come to parks. “We haven’t had any measurable moisture for 150 days,” Elizabeth Brown said. Brown serves as a public relations representative at Panhandle Telephone Cooperative, Inc. (PTCI), an NTCA Smart Rural Community (SRC) Showcase Award Winner and recent SRC Collaboration Challenge Grant recipient. “If you look at the panhandle of Oklahoma on a map, we actually live in a very dry area. We’re semi-desert out here.”

In contrast to the surrounding area, Guymon’s main park has a lake and trees. It has a lighted walking trail, paddle boats and a train. “People go [there] to get away. It’s like a mini-vacation; an oasis in the desert,” Brown said. Recently, PTCI received an SRC grant to further improve the park, with an HD surveillance and security system and public Wi-Fi access. Now, in addition to visiting the park to relax, residents will be able to stay connected even as they enjoy the great outdoors. “They could stream music or interact on FaceTime—enjoy a little fresh air while still being connected to what they needed to do,” said Rachele Taylor, the executive assistant at PTCI.  

The park-improvement project is a testament to the strong collaboration between PTCI and other community stakeholders, as well as to the company’s strong internal culture that encourages public service. PTCI is a cooperative, and promotes the principles of voluntary and open membership; owner economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for the communities it serves.

At all times, PTCI is guided by the desire to provide the best possible customer service and customer experience. Currently, the company is in year four of a seven-year plan to convert all rural communities in its service area to fiber. According to Taylor, “We have three more communities remaining.” The company is providing fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) and, where possible, fiber-to-the-farm in rural clusters.

In addition to upgrading its own broadband infrastructure, PTCI also has worked diligently to address unique customer service challenges—including that 41 distinct languages and dialects are spoken within the company’s service area. “We have a pork processing plant in Guymon with diverse employees” Brown explained, and “they all come to us for internet or cellular service. Our customer service representatives have to communicate with them and understand their needs.”

To accommodate this need, PTCI has hired bilingual service representatives, printed materials in its customers’ native languages, and relied on LanguageLine, a 1-(800) translation service. According to Brown, “[Guymon] is unique in some respects because of this diversity. We are a very diverse small town.” This aspect of Guymon lends itself to a progressive company culture at PTCI, where “our employees are involved in all sorts of different aspects of the community when they’re not working. I think the employees just genuinely love to give back, and they feel that our company is a community, and that we also need to give back to the communities we serve.”

The park improvement project, in fact, “came from the need of our city,” Taylor said. “They approached us and said, ‘We have a public safety issue. We have a vandalism problem, and … upkeep and maintenance [of the park] is very expensive.’ So between [PTCI Plant Manager] Travis Clark and Guymon Parks and Recreation Director Pete Headrick they came up with a plan: Fiber-feed the park and set up some security cameras. In the process, Travis decided it would be a good idea to have Wi-Fi too.”

Taylor said that while a culture of volunteering and providing a superior customer experience may be good for business, “It’s not out of self-interest that we do it. We live here, we work here, we play here—we want to see our communities grow and prosper.”