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If It Plays In Comporium

While national telecommunications companies are still working out the details for delivering wireless services as part of a quadruple-play bundling strategy, the four-product bundle is old hat in South Carolina’s York and Lancaster counties.

In fact, the promotional mailers that hit the region’s mailboxes tout a quintuple play.

Just take a 15-minute drive down tree-lined Interstate 77 from Charlotte, N.C., and you come to Rock Hill, S.C.

You’re now in Comporium Communications country, as witnessed by the oft-seen service trucks, wrapped in ads for their products: local and long distance telephone service, cable TV, high-speed Internet service, cellphone service and home-security contracts.

The provider has roots that may be deeper than the state’s signature palmetto tree: Comporium’s predecessor telephone company has served the community since its first state charter was issued in 1912. (See related story.)

But don’t call it a telephone company. Comporium doesn’t differentiate among its products, executives state repeatedly.

“We’re a communications company,” said president and CEO Bryant Barnes, part of the fourth generation of the Barnes clan to helm the former Rock Hill Telephone Co. The family-run outfit is always looking for ways to make itself more valuable to the community, he added. These new service offerings fit in with the company’s mission statement, adopted in 2004: “Making Life Easier.”

“They are their own little island and they’re completely impenetrable,” one member of the investment banking community, who’s familiar with the company but asked not to be named, raved about Comporium’s local operation. In its markets, the Comporium name is everywhere, the executive said. The company’s assets even include wireless spectrum and towers. And it has little if any debt, boosting its cash flow from a multitude of product offerings.

The company coined its name in March of 2001, a combination of “communications” and “emporium.” Business units gathered under that banner included the Rock Hill, Lancaster and Fort Mill telephone and cable-TV companies; Community Long Distance; Associated Data Services; Associated Telecom Inc.; Stenseth Directory Services; and TeleWatch Security. That’s when the company launched the consolidated bill.

Despite its small size, Comporium has demonstrated that even the 36th-largest cable operator in the nation can recognize and act on trends in communications demand.

PREPARED FOR GROWTH

Even plans for its own offices have been forward-looking: the headquarters, a yellow-hued brick building southwest of downtown Rock Hill, was built in 1966 as a three-story building that could be expanded, if needed, being topped with three more floors. Sure enough, the office space was needed and added in 1988.

Comporium now has 105,468 access lines. Twenty-seven percent of its landline customers also take cellular service. It passes 106,594 cable-television homes and claims 60,000 basic subscribers. Of those, 49% purchase digital-cable service.

The quintuple play is not a big business as yet: that package represents just 3% of Comporium’s digital customers. Triple-play customers are the biggest group: 66% of digital customers pick three products from the company, with 31% of digital subscribers going for a four-product bundle.

Comporium offers discounts for buyers of three or more products. Triple-play customers get a $10 discount off their total bill. Quad play subscribers get $20 off their bill; those who take all five services get a $25 discount.

The company has launched high-definition television and now offers 12 channels, including ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, Universal HD, ESPN HD, ESPN HD2, Discovery HD, National Geographic HD, HDNet, HDNet Movies and HBO HD. The company believes it was one of the firsts to launch ESPN HD.

Seventeen percent of digital consumers also subscribe to digital-video recorder service, launched in June 2004.

And subscribers to Comporium services are not just local residential and business users. Comporium designs and produces its own telephone directories in-house, and sells directory design and publication to other providers.

It also teaches other companies how to market and service home-security products. That business line helped earn Comporium the designation of dealer of the year for 2006 by alarm manufacturer First Alert.

The company has been selling wireless services for 10 years, Barnes noted. That expanded in 2001, when Comporium bought part of Cingular’s local wireless network. It delivers cellular service through these owned-and-operated towers, routing traffic onto AT&T’s network. (As an AT&T wireless affiliate, the company will be able to pitch another innovation to its customers: the iPhone. Executives said they’ve not yet been told when they can sell the devices.)

INDUSTRIAL DEVOLUTION

In reinventing itself, Comporium has been influenced by the communities it serves.

The textile corridor once ran through this part of the state, just south of Charlotte, N.C. As textile manufacturing has died out, Rock Hill and other communities have adapted by attracting high-tech businesses.

Just north of Rock Hill’s red-brick Main Street, an old cotton factory has been renovated and will be rented out to new businesses. East of the interstate, the community has razed a huge Celanese Corp. fiber manufacturing plant. The land is planned for redevelopment into business and residential space.

New jobs draw new home building and Comporium is focused on getting into those developments at the construction phase. Comporium is the preferred provider, helping build “smart houses” in a new 4,800-home development by the Del Webb Division of Sun City Carolina Lakes. (Executives believe they beat out Time Warner’s Charlotte, N.C., division for the contract with down-home strategy: a Comporium executive hand-delivered the proposal to development executives in New York.)

Comporium bills housing developers for the wiring and the builders have the option of paying for home-security services that they may provide free to new buyers and a purchase incentive.

The operator does not take for granted that in-home wiring means an automatic Comporium customer. It has developed a new-home welcome kit. A wheeled Coleman cooler, embossed with the company’s name, arrives loaded with paper towels, plates, napkins, toilet paper and other pre-unpacking essentials.

The cooler also includes an envelope describing all the services available from the company, as well coupons worth $800 to $1,000 in services from local businesses. The cooler costs Comporium about $36 and the company sells placement in the new home orientation envelope to the local businesses, executives said.

Even if Comporium doesn’t get the buyer at the time of sale, residents notice the provider around the community. The communications company has 10 retail locations within its service area.

Wireless is a true retail product and it has to be positioned as such, said marketing product manager Karl Skroban. Because “everybody’s got a $39.95 offer,” Comporium promotes the value of bundling cellular with other services at the retail point of sale. The company learned from the consumer input on its first stores: due to customer feedback, all stores have a drive-through payment window and are open until 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

The latest cellular advertising campaign will be the company’s first featuring a celebrity spokesman. The company has hired Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown, a “local boy made good,” to star in its ads.

Brown’s profile is extra high just now: His tackle of New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush in a 2007 National Football League playoff game was called the “hit of the year” by many in the sports media.

PHONE BILLS ON THE TV

Comporium works to keep its customers by offering such added features as caller ID on TV. That feature is available to telephone customers who subscribe to digital basic cable or higher levels of service. In addition to information on the immediate incoming calls, consumers can review three pages of their call history by tuning to channel 111.

A beta test is underway now with 30 “friendlies” in the community that are testing caller ID on personal computers. Executives said no specific date has been set for launch of that product: There are “a few software things to fix.”

Comporium’s forward-thinking marketing department has an executive who does market research, technological feasibility and business plan studies on proposed new products, an initiative the company calls “Pipeline.”

Four years of research were done before the launch of Caller ID on TV; seven products are being vetted now.

The company has demonstrated its investment in its business, but it invests in its community and its employees, too. For instance, Comporium is currently one of the supporters of a fund to restore the White home, a former plantation house down the road from the Comporium headquarters that was the home of one of Rock Hill’s founding families and still held by its descendants.

Like bigger companies such as Cablevision Systems and Time Warner Cable, Comporium has created its own local news operation, CN2.

Though they’re in the Charlotte, N.C., designated market area, Comporium communities such as Rock Hill and Fort Mill aren’t covered by media outlets based in its larger neighbor, said William Beaty Jr., executive vice president of cable TV operations. That’s why Comporium launched CN2 in 1992.

The studio, two blocks from headquarters, produces a local 30-minute news telecast each day. Comporium has a deal with WBTV, the CBS affiliate in Charlotte: If CN2 covers a prominent news story, it is transmitted via microwave to the broadcaster.

WBTV also provides CN2 with weather coverage. Doppler radar images are provided through another partnership, with NBC affiliate WCNC.

CN2 also carries telecasts of local church sermons, and covers high school graduation ceremonies. The latter has been so popular that some high schools are considering moving their ceremonies to Rock Hill-based Winthrop University, so that extended families can view the ceremonies for which there are not enough tickets, Skroban said.

Comporium believes content like that keep customers from defecting to direct-broadcast satellite.

According to a report commissioned for Rock Hill by a consultant during refranchising negotiations in 2005, DBS subscription is 8% below the national average of 26.7%.

Comporium’s local commitment also includes programs such as the President’s Intern Program. Each summer, a crop of area students is selected to serve a paid internship with the company. Seventeen students participated this summer, with children and grandchildren of current employees getting priority for selection. Barnes descendants also participate in the program.

John Barnes Jr. — executive vice president of marketing and business solutions, and part of the fourth generation of the owner family — said descendants are guaranteed their first job with the company as students, but are also expected to go get job experience in the “real world” before returning and earning a spot with Comporium.

LOCAL PEOPLE’S VIEWS

Comporium’s local commitments have not gone unnoticed by the area’s regulators.

“They are very present in the community as a supporter of local events. They are a wonderful partner,” said Jim Reno, a local banker and member of the city council. “Business leaders here are very aware they are a forward-looking company.”

Reno was formerly an attorney in private practice who contracted for services.

“I was amazed by the level of technological expertise” by the engineers he encountered, he said.

As a councilman, Reno is aware of few complaints about the operator, other than dissatisfaction with rate increases, he said.

The cost of cable service, as with many telecommunications providers, is the first thing cited by customers, even in a robustly served community like Rock Hill.

Service workers around town, asked about their provider by a reporter, were quick to identify Comporium as the local provider, and the seller of multiple products.

But no matter how forward-looking a company may be, cable rates are always the Achilles heel when it comes to customer satisfaction.

“I don’t have a choice,” said Michelle, a hotel worker who didn’t want her last name used, echoing others interviewed for this story. “[Comporium’s] all right. I just wish there was some competition. It’s always nice to have a choice. Without it, they can do anything they want on prices.”