In a world where consolidation is the norm and independence is increasingly rare and difficult to pull off, Buckeye Broadband is clearly bucking the trend.
After more than five decades as Buckeye CableSystem, the company ditched the “cable” moniker this summer, supplanting it with “broadband” to better reflect the company’s emphasis on high-speed Internet and its expansion of new products and services.
To be sure, Buckeye is still in the cable business. The company offers a robust lineup of local and satellite-delivered video channels at packages that start at less than $30 a month. It also offers phone services to round out the triple play.
But it’s broadband Internet service that executives believe will be Buckeye’s future — one that will make it the competitor to beat and one that will help keep the company remain independent.
“We’re not changing Buckeye, but we have to identify what it actually is now, which is different than what it was in the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s, 1990s, and even the last few years,” Allan Block, chairman of Block Communications, said in June when the company’s new name took effect.
Block Communications was founded in 1900 when Paul Block formed an ad rep firm for newspapers. The Block empire grew through the 1910s and ’20s, encompassing several newspapers on the East Coast. The Great Depression resulted in the loss of all but three of those properties: the ad rep firm, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade.
Block moved the company’s headquarters to Toledo in 1927. After Paul Block died in 1941, his sons took over. Allan Block, Paul Block’s grandson, serves as the company’s chairman today.
Eventually, the Blocks added TV stations to the company’s arsenal and, in 1965, they started Buckeye CableSystem. From the beginning, the Block family stuck to its roots, serving residents in Toledo and Sandusky, Ohio. They neither expanded nor considered selling out.
In 2014, Block saw an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. Harron Communications was selling its rural network of cable systems in Mississippi, and Block snapped them up. Operationally, the MaxxSouth properties are run separately from Buckeye, but the company adheres to the Block Communications vision and mission of customer first, according to MaxxSouth president and CEO Peter Kahelin.
“We service small, rural communities and we’re a big part of their lives,” Kahelin said. “Harron did a good job of taking 60 communities and connecting them to one network. We saw that as a big boon and took advantage of it when those properties came on the market.
“We’ve seen strong growth since we took over,” he added. “We created new packages. We’ve been going door to door and that has worked exceptionally well in these rural communities. We expect to see growth of between 8.5% and 10% by the end of the year.”
Keith Wilkowski, Buckeye’s vice president of business and legal affairs, spent weeks attending town council meetings in 45 jurisdictions served by MaxxSouth, and said he found the reception to be warm and welcoming. The residents were excited about receiving new services and the community leaders were pleased to hear about Buckeye’s commitment to the communities it serves, he said.
The Toledo, Sandusky and MaxxSouth systems count a combined 137,000 video customers and 160,300 broadband customers as of March 31. Block has about 800 Buckeye employees and another 2,300 corporate-wide. It has 5,800 miles of coaxial cable and another 3,200 miles of fiber as of Dec. 31, 2015.
To kick off the rebranding, Buckeye began this month increasing its 9 Megabits-per-second high-speed Internet service to 18 Mbps and its 26 Mbps service to 50 Mbps. The move coincides with the rollout of TiVo software and hardware that will enable customers to stream video from services such as Netflix and Hulu.
After nearly 20 years of offering broadband services to its customers, high-speed Internet is now the biggest part of the company’s business, and Block thinks broadband will be the product that keeps Buckeye in the bull’s-eye. It will be what differentiates the company going forward, he said.
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VIDEO STILL MATTERS
Unlike some other operators that are beginning to trim back or eliminate linear offerings, Buckeye continues to add video channels that executives believe will enhance its product lineup without hurting the bottom line. Independent networks given berths on Buckeye in recent months include Poker Central, Pivot, One America News Network, Newsmax TV and MAV TV.
Another addition was Februrary’s multiyear deal with TiVo, which makes the company Buckeye’s primary provider of software, user experience and cloud services across its entire footprint. The deal, which went into effect June 1, includes TiVo DVR set-tops and its Web, mobile and tablet applications.
Buckeye will also use a new TiVo-based non-DVR hybrid set-top that will tie in the operator’s on demand offerings with over-the-top services including Hulu, Netflix and Amazon.
Block once worried that broadband service would become a commodity, but he said he’s no longer concerned about that. That’s because Buckeye has focused on having the most reliable network in its service territory and is offering services that will enable customers to fully enjoy the connection, he said.
And as Internet connections are integrated into household appliances like refrigerators, having a reliable and robust pipe to the house will be crucial for success, according to Block. “The Internet of things will change everything,” he predicted.
Still, Buckeye isn’t relying on new smart appliances to reach its customers and provide broadband service. It has created a pay-as-you-go broadband service called Nimble.
Not everyone can afford or needs the amount of broadband offered in the company’s packages, Block said. Some 10% to 12% of Buckeye’s homes passed are former customers with bad credit and who couldn’t pay their bills at some point.
Buckeye’s executive team didn’t want to totally prevent such consumers from accessing the Internet. The Nimble product gives folks the ability to connect with the outside world without it costing an arm and a leg. “Pay as you go with broadband gives people dignity and the ability to access the net when they want to or need to,” Block said.
In addition, Buckeye is committed to making sure every resident in its service territory has access to the Web via broadband. To that end, the company years ago wired up every school in its service territory, public and private.
Buckeye is also currently working with public housing authorities in its territories to provide free universal broadband access to qualifying low-income residents. It’s a limited service but allows folks to use email or surf the Web, president and GM Jeff Abbas said.
Low-income residents who don’t qualify can still buy a lifeline broadband service for as little as $5 a month. “This enables people to get on the grid,” Abbas said.
About 150 people have signed up for the free broadband access to date, Abbas said. Some customers who signed up for the free service has since upgraded to a pay package or the Nimble service because they realize they want more access.
“We need to hear what our customers are telling us,” Geoff Shook, executive vice president of customer experience, said. “We hear what they want and then we figure out how to fulfill those needs. We heard they wanted a lifeline service and a pre-pay service so we created them.”
Customer experience is everything at Buckeye. When a customer calls, they are immediately connected to a real person. New software allows the agent to greet the customer by name and on-screeen information gives the agent the customer’s history and service levels.
That’s not unusual. But what really differentiates Buckeye from its competition is the fact that all agents are local, Shook said. If a customer calls Buckeye, chances are they might know the person on the other side. Being local allows agents to better understand and discern the situations, locations and issues that affect that customer, he said.
When the cable industry developed uniform customer-service benchmarks in the 1980s — after being vilified for bad customer service — longtime Buckeye employees recall laughing at the notion. That’s because Buckeye was already surpassing those standards by leaps and bounds, said MSO veteran Bonnie Ash, who had served as vice president of business operations before retiring a few years ago. Ash eventually returned to Buckeye as director of community affairs, working closely with Wilkowski.
TECH SUPPORT ‘BRANIACS’
“Our goal at Buckeye is to touch everyone in the community in some way or another,” she said. Ash and and another staffer plan and execute hundreds of community events every year, often handling multiple events in one day.
Ash counts on company employees to pitch in and help and most are happy to do so. Buckeye has a charitable program that gives ever employee $100 they can use to donate to any charity of their choice. They just have to donate two hours of their own time to be eligible. Buckeye also launched its own version of Best Buy’s “Geek Squad” tech support service, called “Braniacs.” The tech team is available to all help all customers to connect their various devices and services, Wilkowski said. Braniacs also visit local senior centers, recreation centers and other venues to educate residents — Buckeye customers or not — free of charge.
“We take a consultant approach to customer service and sales,” Shook said. “We drive home the fact that every customer could be your neighbor and you want to treat them like your neighbor. People connect with the notion of being local because it’s the exception rather the rule these days.”
That’s always been the Buckeye way, according to chairman Block.
“I have never agreed with the notion that the big MSOs can do a better job or have better service than an independent operator. I’m proud of our customer-centric attitude and our philosophy of treating people the way you want to be treated.
“Are we perfect? Of course not. But our commitment is constant and consistent. We are customer-service diehards,” he said. “As long as we can do business better than our competitors, there’s no reason we shouldn’t keep doing that.”
SIDEBAR: Hyper-Local Sports: A Winning Play
Like many larger MSOs, Buckeye Broadband is in the regional sports business. But it’s not the sort of costly, pro-sports-focused RSN operated by big MSOs such as Comcast or Charter Communications.
BCSN, the RSN launched by Buckeye in 2004, is a hyper-local channel focusing on smaller-scale events like minor-league hockey games, local college and high-school contests and even little league games.
The model was so successful in the Toledo and Sandusky, Ohio, systems that Buckeye launched a similar, hyper-local sports channel in the MaxxSouth systems it acquired from Harron Communications in 2014. MaxxSouth, operated separately from Buckeye Broadband, serves about 50,000 customers in 60 rural Mississippi communities.
BCSN and MaxxSouth Sports do more than just cover games. The Ohio network has partnered with WTVG-TV in Toledo to produce a half-hour nightly sports show that goes beyond game recaps.
Through WTGV, BCSN also delivers a weekly four-hour football program covering all the local high-school action, as well as a three-hour high-school basketball recap during hoops season. Ohio law forbids live high-school football telecasts, but BCSN’s four roving studio trucks visit each game and gather news, tidbits and features on what’s happening, BCSN general manager Marc Jaromin said.
BCSN’s four production trucks often cover multiple events in a single day. “We are efficient,” Jaromin said. “We can roll in an hour-and-a-half before an event and break down within a half hour after an event.
“Recently, we covered the same event as ESPN. They had 33 people doing the same job at the same level of performance as we did with seven people.”
BCSN recently covered and sponsored a charity boxing event to fight Parkinson’s disease in Toledo. The network didn’t just cover the seven fights on the card — it also produced a half-hour pre-show spotlighting athletes affected by Parkinson’s, and taped local health officials talking about the disease for use in interstitials.
“Anyone can offer up a box score,” Jaromin said. “But telling the news behind the score is what makes BCSN different and relevant with viewers. Bottom line, we want to deliver to the community what the community wants to see.”
Buckeye also plans to launch a new arts channel along the lines of BCSN. BCSN Arts, located next to BCSN on the dial on a former local-origination channel, will soft-launch this fall and formally kick of in January, Jaromin said.
BCSN Arts will televise content developed by local high school students and help them with their projects as well. And it will televise shows featuring students preparing for school plays, choir concerts, dance recitals and band performances.
“This is just another way for us to connect to our customers and our community,” Jaromin said. “I think it will be very successful and as popular as BCSN.”
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