In the summer of 1954, a pioneering group of men and women from all over western Montana officially organized Blackfoot Telephone Cooperative Association Inc., and the first capital stock subscriptions cost $50 apiece. The first 10 investors, five of whom were women, raised a princely sum of $500 to start the cooperative. The most centralized location seemed to be Missoula, so that’s the spot they picked for the headquarters.
Thus, a company was born that would survive six decades of change, from rotary telephones to high-speed broadband cable and Internet access, and now plays an important role in the local economy.
Blackfoot Telecommunications Group, as it is known today, is a regional diversified broadband company with 170 employees, $105 million in assets and customers in over 30 Montana and Idaho communities.
Last Saturday, the company held their 60th anniversary celebration.
Company CEO Bill Squires, who has been with the company for 13 years, has been researching the history the business in anticipation of the milestone.
“It was pretty humble beginnings when we first started proving service in Dixon, Arlee and then over in the Blackfoot corridor to Ovando and Seeley Lake,” he said.
He sent out a letter to company employees and members and talked about his respect for the group that began the cooperative.
“One can’t help but marvel at the vision and dedication of the small band of individuals that came together in 1954 to start this organization with their own money and tireless spirit,” he wrote. “I remarked in my last letter to our members that these pioneers could not have envisioned the transformation of our industry 60 years later. As I continue to learn about our founders, I realize that observation is not entirely accurate. In fact, they were far ahead of their time and that same innovative passion drives our business forward today.”
Squires said that Blackfoot is a broadband-focused company, but they also provide traditional voice services, data services and high-speed networking services so that their customers can compete in a global economy.
“Professional services are also very much a growth engine for us the last couple of years and will be a major part of our success in the future,” Squires said. “That’s our IT consulting services, where our data network engineers go out and work with businesses to not just install service but to design their network that is most efficient for them and help manage it in the future.”
Each business has unique needs, Squires explained.
“We base it on their particular application, their growth curve,” he said. “Some businesses grow slowly some are fast. We don’t want our customers paying more for than they are actually going to use. It always sounds sexy to say I want a gigabyte service, but a lot of businesses don’t need that and I don’t want to seem them paying for something they don’t need, so we consult with them.”
Squires said that the telecommunications industry has changed a lot in 60 years.
“It’s all about moving vast amounts of data anymore,” he said. “Our nation has an insatiable thirst for data. All of us do. Right now, nationwide, we transmit about 55 billion movies a year across the country on broadband pipes, if you convert all the data to movies, something we can all understand and relate to. And that’s going to double in the next three years. It’s all about getting enough broadband network out there for our customers to take advantage of all these services.”
Squires said that it will be a challenge for the country to supply the infrastructure necessary to keep up with consumer’s voracious demand.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever catch up with the demand as a nation,” he said. “It’s certainly available in a lot of pockets. We have broadband available to 98.5 percent of our customers. There is a vast amount of fiber-optic cable that runs through Missoula. There are huge broadband pipes going in and out of Missoula. It’s always a challenge to get that out to some of the neighborhoods. It’s both a cost and a demand issue. The cost of tearing up streets to put facilities out to homes is pretty extreme compared to demand. So I think nationwide the network is there and it involves everyday companies like ours investing millions of dollars a year to keep up with that demand.”
There are certain industry segments that are experiencing a particularly high growth rate and therefore need a lot of broadband service, Squires said.
“One certainly one is health care, with the need to transmit medical records and real-time consulting images such as X-rays and MRIs,” he said. “The health care industry has boomed in a lot of ways.”
Squires also believes that Missoula is becoming a hub for IT companies.
“Missoula has been recognized in the past couple years as a real IT community,” he explained. “It’s attracting high-tech businesses. I think that’s clear out at MonTEC, where companies like Rivertop Renewables have really gotten a jumpstart. I think we will continue to attract high-tech industries. We’ve got several software companies here in town. So, high-tech cottage industries that may seem a little behind the scenes, because they may only have five to 20 employees, are really catching on in Missoula. I think we’re going to see a lot more of that growth. It’s a good clean industry and people love to live in Missoula and if they can bring their company here they will.”
Squires said he has seen incredible growth of the company. The revenues have doubled in the last five years, through the organic growth of broadband and IT services and acquisitions of other companies.
“The growth has been explosive,” he said. “It’s been a dynamic industry to be a part of, and we see a lot more growth on the horizon.”