Phone company

Out-of-State Supplier Bought Local Telephone Company From Unity

Telecommunications company Unity UniTel was sold last week to an Idaho-based broadband provider that plans to rapidly expand fiber-optic internet service in the region.

Direct Communications of Rockland, Idaho purchased the company for an undisclosed amount.

“I think it’s a positive step in the right direction,” unit coach Penny Sampson said Tuesday. “It’s a third-generation family business that invests in rural areas.

In this regard, Unity and Rockland, Idaho are similar. Both are rural locations that don’t have the kind of connectivity options that an urban area would have. Rockland is a farming town of 300 people, and when the company expanded into fiber optics in the early 2000s, it quickly found a niche offering broadband Internet service to small, remote communities.

“That’s our goal – to be able to bridge this digital divide between rural and urban areas,” said Kalee Ralphs, Marketing Director of Direct Communications. “We really want to extend fiber to rural areas. Let’s take fiber for those who have been overlooked. Those who need it. »

Currently, UniTel is a internet service provider for Unity, Albion, Knox, Thorndike and surrounding towns. It offers fiber service in some areas and DSL, which is a slower internet connection, in other areas. The company also provides residential and business telephone service to its customers.

Ralphs said his company will begin by realigning UniTel’s rate structure.

“We will create more fiber bundles at lower levels, so that they are more accessible to all customers. Lower the price and lower the speed,” she said. “We will offer faster packages to accommodate more customers. This is the first step.

From there, the company will get to work developing its fiber optic infrastructure.

“We would like to get fiber to as many people as possible as quickly as possible,” she said. “We are a rapidly evolving company. We have no intention of slowing down. »

Direct Communications, which also owns a small telecommunications company in Louisiana, wasn’t necessarily looking to expand into the northeast, she said. But UniTel seemed like a good choice.

UniTel currently offers fiber internet access to home users, and Direct Communications intends to build on what already exists to bring fast internet access to as many people as possible.

“They were a telecommunications company, and we got our start as a telecommunications company. We have similar growth models and were looking for a company with a strong employee base,” Ralphs said. continued to pursue him.”

This kind of forward-looking approach would sound familiar to former UniTel owner Bert Clifford, a UniTel businessman and philanthropist.

After returning home from serving in the Navy during World War II, Clifford worked on the family dairy farm and later served as a Unity postman, bus driver and postmaster. In the early 1960s he began to acquire shares of Unity Telephone Co. and became its majority shareholder in 1963.

Clifford turned the small telephone company into a million dollar business. It became the first telephone company in New England to have an all-digital core network, and in the 1980s it ventured into the cellular phone business, which the company no longer offers. .

Clifford and his wife, Coral, have shared much of their fortune with the community in ways both large and small.

He helped found Unity College in 1965, after he and other local leaders considered ways to avoid rural decay. He built Field of Dreams, a community recreation area on the shore of Unity Pond, generously funded the local health center, and built Clifford Common Business Park in downtown Unity. He also carefully restored the 19th century farmhouse and barn in the middle of town that became the Unity College Center for the Performing Arts.

The Unity Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded by the Cliffords in 2000, still works to support nonprofits in Maine.

“They have been very generous with the city. Not just to the city, to college and to individuals as well,” Sampson said.

After Clifford’s death in 2001, UniTel’s assets became part of the Unity Foundation. In 2013, Laurie Osgood, who had been president and CEO of the company since 2003, purchased it from the Unity Foundation.

The sale to a new owner from UniTel doesn’t faze Sampson, who said it’s not the biggest transition the city is facing right now. Unity is grappling with ongoing changes at Unity College, including far fewer students living on campus and circulating in the community.

“College and everything in it is so on hold,” she said.

On the other hand, the situation at UniTel seems very positive to him. Two UniTel employees came to the Unity Selectboard meeting Monday night to talk about improving the city’s broadband offerings.

“We know the future is in fiber optics,” Sampson said.

Bringing broadband to the entire city would cost around $1.5 million, she said. Some towns in Maine are using their American Rescue Plan Act funds to help them expand their high-speed internet, but Unity wants to go in a different direction. The city has money in a special fund to fund tax increases that it can use to expand broadband, and the city’s economic development committee recommends that Unity spend about $75,000 of that fund to do it.

Whatever the city spends, UniTel will match it, Sampson said.

“With this, we have skin in the game, which would make it easier to get grants,” she said.