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Staying connected: Utah Rural Telecom Association.

THE DAYS OF TELEPHONE OPERATORS busily answering calls, manually connecting customers, and generally keeping the community connected are gone. There's no longer a familiar local voice on the phone coordinating party lines and "putting you through" to your desired destination. It's all automated now. Yes, even the smallest southeastern Utah hamlets have done away with the switchboard and gone high-tech. But they haven't done it alone.

When you make a call from somewhere outside of the 801 area code, chances are you're using one of the state's rural telecom companies. (Think Qwest is connecting all the calls in the Beehive State? Think again.) More than 85 percent of the geographic area of Utah is serviced by one of 14 local telecommunication companies. They serve more than 93,000 people, or roughly 4 percent of the state's population. And they're part of a cooperative called the Utah Rural Telecom Association (URTA).

Strength in Numbers

Most independent telephone companies began as small family-owned or cooperative efforts to link rural farming communities to larger cities. Over the years these companies progressed and replaced switchboards with digital switches and fiber optic transmission facilities.

In 1954, Reed Burr, manager of Garkane Power and South Central Utah Telephone Association, called a meeting with the Rural Electric Association (REA) members with the hope of organizing an association. Burr wanted to organize the REA borrowers, including electric co-ops, but it became apparent that the electric borrowers couldn't come to terms in order to form an association. So Burr took the remaining interested telephone companies and formed a telephone association.

After years of struggling with three or four telephone companies, Burr finally convinced all the independent phone companies in the state to band together and form Exchange Carriers of Utah in 1986.

They hired a lobbyist and executive director, Nancy Gibbs, and began to use their collective strength to negotiate contracts and create adequate representation in Utah's political arena. Their goal: bridge the communication gaps in Utah's rural areas and do it affordably. Then in 1998 the name was changed to the more intuitive moniker, Utah Rural Telecom Association.

URTA now consists of four family-owned companies, three cooperatives, and seven commercial telephone companies, which are located throughout every county in the state except for Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, and Morgan (see map).


A Single Voice

URTA's role in the progression has been centralization and consolidation. "When the first cooperatives were formed it was to make it easier to fill out forms, obtain government loans at lower interest rates, and work with the rural utility service," says Gibbs. "Now we leverage our power as a group to lobby for equitable utility regulations, negotiate with the large carriers of the region, and simply have strength in numbers."

Having Gibbs as its voice has also allowed URTA to focus more of its members' time and money on services rather than the paperwork, legal filing, or political wrangling.

By combining forces, URTA's members have been able to keep up with technology (they offer basic phone, video conferencing, DSL, internet, VoIP, and cable TV services, just to name a few), build a better rapport with legislators and other telecoms, and link the state's communities with up-to-date and affordable telecommunication services.

"As rural telecom providers we all have common interests and problems," says James Woody, vice president of URTA and founder of Union Telephone Company, one of URTA's 14 members. "We've also found we have common solutions, and we've been able to create some synergy."

But it isn't just the rural communities reaping the rewards of URTA; everyone in the state benefits from their efforts. Families in metropolitan areas, for instance, can easily connect with their loved ones in out-of-the-way places.

"Every call needs a sender and a receiver and it's unreasonable to ask rural users to pay more," says Gibbs. "Our goal has been to keep people connected and to do so affordably for everyone."

For all the technology, wires, and computers that go into creating a successful telecommunication environment, it's ironic that what binds it all together is still the huma touch. "Without URTA--and especially Nancy [Gibbs]--we simply wouldn't be as successful individually or collectively," adds Woody.

Brooks Stevenson is a Salt Lake City-based freelance writer.
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Title Annotation:techknowledge
Author:Stevenson, Brooks
Publication:Utah Business
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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