A Pioneer in Cellular Service
The author and historian William Gilmore Simms once described genius as the eye of intellect and the wing of thought. “Genius,” he said, “is always in advance of its time, and is the pioneer for the generation which it precedes.” In Oklahoma, such ingenuity enabled a team in the telecom industry to eye the future and form a cooperative which has not only given wing to thought, but a lot of pictures and text messages too. By taking advantage of opportunities well in advance of their time, this enterprise has not only become a pioneer to the generation it preceded, but a pioneer for generations to come.
More than sixty years ago, forged with a vision and an initiative to effectively deliver telephone and eventually wireless telecommunication services to the residents of western Oklahoma, Pioneer Telephone Cooperative was established and has since earned distinction as one of the largest cooperatively owned telecommunications companies in the United States. Headquartered in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, the Board of Trustees, Management and employees at Pioneer are driven to fulfill the expectations of their shareholders, which in this case, is not some share of movers and shakers engaged in the machination of stock trading. As a cooperative, its shareholders are the very customers who require, and rely, on the landline and other broadband telecommunication services Pioneer provides. Since 1953, the cooperative’s services have evolved sufficiently beyond landline to include: Cellular, Broadband networking, Security Systems, Directory publishing, Long Distance, DSL and IPTV digital television. As services have expanded, so too has the cooperative, in degrees not only represented by customers served, but through the opening of more than 29 retail centers and the staffing of more than 550 employees, who manage all manner of operational aspects. Significant to all that growth and the drive to satisfy customer needs was a decision made more than 25 years ago, but to put that story in proper context requires a bit of explanation from Richard Ruhl, the General Manager of Pioneer.
Ruhl harks back to those seemingly ancient-of-days when cellular phone service was beginning to emerge throughout the country – the era certain grey-hairs often refer to as the 1980s. The rolling-out of those services prompted the Federal Communications Commission to create a lottery system in which providers would be awarded F.C.C. service area Licenses, and some 320 of the nation’s largest metropolitan statistical areas would secure cellular first. The Pioneer Cooperative Board of Trustee’s determined to cast its luck in the lottery involving the MSA of Enid, Oklahoma. Ruhl says lottery participation was limited only to licensed telephone companies who had existing presence in the market area. At the time, Pioneer was competing against Southwestern Bell and another enterprise known as Kan-Okla Telephone Association. With only one company capable of claiming the one license up for draw, principals from Pioneer negotiated with principals from Kan-Okla about forming an alliance. By working together, they could improve their chances of securing the license. As it turned-out, this alliance approached Southwestern Bell who, for a small fee, would step away from the Enid, Oklahoma lottery and set sights on more lucrative markets in directions of Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Dallas, Texas. Having reached that settlement, Pioneer Cellular would go on to be the first to launch Cellular Service in Enid, Oklahoma in 1988.
“Our whole intent was to respond to the desire of our customers. The Pioneer Board and Management saw how cellular service had potential growth opportunities, and we believed that this could help diversify our revenues,” say Ruhl, in a tone absent of gloating inflection as to just how right they were. Today, Pioneer Cellular is providing service to residents in some 37 counties of Oklahoma as well as 14 counties of Kansas, a coverage area that encompasses more than 100,000 square-miles. Between Kansas and Oklahoma, Pioneer maintains more than 400 cell sites today and is one of the few Tier3 carriers who have been capable, as Ruhl says, “of keeping up with the big guys.”
A Partner in Progress
Pioneer’s progress is not something so spurred through the cellular connections it facilitates, rather its commitment to customers in Oklahoma. The company refers to itself as a “partner in progress,” but Ruhl says this is not so much a slogan, but more of a company philosophy involving its role in the market. In fact, Pioneer has long been a partner in community initiatives involving local food and blood drives, the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, and the awarding of scholarships to both vocational-technical as well as college students. It is an active participant in seasonal and cultural celebrations, leads educational programs on Internet safety and disaster preparedness, it donates funds to a variety of causes as well as phones to precincts during elections, and a lot more. Ruhl says Pioneer doesn’t simply view itself as a business operating in the community, but as integral member of the community, and there are countless examples that speak to that.
At the same time, being a partner in progress has meant that the company has had to progress on the range of services it is providing through its core business operations. To that extent, today, Pioneer Cellular is deploying the full capacity of 4G LTE, 3G EVDO, and an array of advanced mobility services and applications which include video, picture and text messaging, right along with Web Browsing and Web Apps that enhance users’ ability to be productive even while they’re on-the-go. In fact, through a partnership with Verizon Wireless, Pioneer was the first independent wireless operator to launch 4G LTE service through an endeavor known as the Verizon Wireless LTE Rural America Program.
Some of Pioneer’s services can be life altering. For example, last year Pioneer launched the Amber Alert System through its network, as well as weather event warning system. The company is on the verge of releasing the “Text-to-911” product, a service that Ruhl says will be very important to the hearing impaired. “More and more people are using their mobile devices as a kind of life-line. Whether it is someone injured in a disaster area or in an accident, for the hearing impaired, this service allows them to send a text directly to 911 which will help ensure that they get connected with the help they need,” he says.
Pioneer’s progress has also been reflected in the range of devices to which customers have access, but that is a process which has fostered progress for device manufacturers too. Ruhl explains that it isn’t much good to have a great network if customers don’t want to use it because they don’t have the kind of devices they want. As the iPhone emerged in urban landscapes, rest assured there were many in small-town America wanting access to the same. That’s easier said than done, explains Ruhl. He says the large carriers have a manner of sucking up that inventory through their volume of purchase(s). Pioneer has navigated such factors by forming alliances which enable it to make volume purchases that would otherwise be difficult on its own accord. It took almost a year of negotiations before Pioneer was able to successfully roll-out iPhone to its customers. Beyond Apple, Pioneer has secured agreements with Samsung, Blackberry and Motorola in its continuing mission to provide the best of technology offerings for its customers.
Partnerships, which have been so critical to Pioneer’s formation are still fundamental to everyday operations. It works with the best in industry to fulfill service requirement. Those partnerships include work with global communications leader Alcatel-Lucent, who provides critical network infrastructure support. “If you don’t have a strong relationship with them, you’ll fail in the marketplace,” says Ruhl. On the landline side of the equation, Pioneer has prospered from reliance on services from firms such as Cisco, Calix and ADTran. To carry the range of devices and product accessories it makes available, Pioneer has worked with distributors such as BrightStar, BrightPoint and ACG. Pioneer also works with a range of local enterprises. For example, Westside Services LLC of Crescent, Oklahoma, helps Pioneer by providing critical standby electric power solutions. As a partner in progress, Pioneer has effectively provided the full measure of network capability and tools of technology to enable residents to experience the same that could be accessed in the world’s largest cities. “It’s a challenge economically,” says Ruhl. “As competitive as this business can be, it is a bit of a balancing act being able to deliver top quality and top service and balancing that with the economics.”
Pioneer continues to prosper. Their Cellular 4G LTE and 3G CDMA service area will soon extend to ten additional counties, new products are coming to market and new retail centers will be opening. Ruhl is optimistic about the future because all indicators suggest demand is going up. Ironically, that demand will have less to do with making traditional cell phone calls. Ruhl says studies predict a decline in wire line and wireless voice services, that as many as 50 percent of wireless devices will not be used for voice in the future. He says the increasing emphasis is on data in the form of pictures and video. These types of transmissions will necessitate investment in network infrastructure to accommodate the magnitude of content customers wish to access, but Ruhl says Pioneer is prepared to advance its systems in order to serve its customers. By focusing on customer service, by creating and maintaining partnerships which enable it to compete and by driving to deliver the greatest in technical innovation, look to this Oklahoma carrier to continue its posture as a pioneering provider in cellular service.
For more information, please visit their website at: Pioneer Cellular
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