Responding to the Sudden Need for Speed

When the pandemic broke out and Americans’ demand for fast, reliable broadband service turned on as quickly as a light switch, few companies had a clearer view of their homebound customers’ sudden need for speed than Tennessee-based United Communications.

“COVID-19 brought on an unprecedented period where we had to balance meeting customers’ increased broadband needs and at the same time, remain vigilant about the safety needs of our people,” said William Bradford, United CEO. “It’s a true testament to staying strong that we doubled down and powered through while keeping everyone safe and well-served.”

Founded in 1947, the company first made a name for itself by providing phone service in rural markets other providers refused to serve. Today, more than 20,000 customers in middle Tennessee count on United for their high-speed internet, WiFi, digital TV and telephone service.

Those customers, their communities, and the employees who serve them weighed heavily on the minds of United’s leaders March 14 when they first became fully aware of the pandemic. On that day, a small team of company executives were in Atlanta to meet with Kevin Oliver, their relationship manager at CoBank since 2015. They were discussing plans to aggressively expand United’s fiber network to new areas of Tennessee. Then, news broke about the pending threat of COVID-19 and public health officials called on everyone to safely quarantine at home.

I’m proud that we stayed true to our mission of providing an essential service to our customers.

– Kristin Jackson, CFO, United Communications

On their drive back to Nashville, Bradford and his teammates decided to stay the course on network expansion, but also make safety the highest priority for all employees. Within 24 hours, with little business interruption, they mobilized a work-at-home program. They also instituted strict safety protocols for office and warehouse workers, for sales staff at call centers, and for technicians and install crews.

The company’s decisiveness paid off. Over the next few months, United earned high customer satisfaction scores and kept pace with customer additions – even amid a pandemic-driven 30% spike in demand for service.

“When COVID hit, we could have immediately scaled back operations. Instead, we all agreed that broadband would be more important than ever,” said Kristin Jackson, United’s CFO. “I’m proud that we stayed true to our mission of providing an essential service to our customers, many of whom desperately need it.”

To partially offset added costs of its employee safety program, United took out a government-issued PPP loan, which CoBank helped facilitate. Later on, CoBank closed on a new $25 million delayed-draw term loan that supported the further build-out of United’s fiber network. United also credits CoBank’s support as a major reason it recently obtained $9.5 million in federal and state grants. “At every turn, United has continued to meet the challenges brought on by the pandemic,” Oliver said.