How did a rural telephone company linking quarries together survive – even thrive – over a century to reach speed-of-light communication services through fiber business and residential internet, backhaul for digital cell phones, and increasingly multi-dimensional experiences through the online metaverse?
A century ago, a top employer and economic force in southern Indiana was not today’s $2 billion Naval Surface Warfare Center at Crane. In the early part of the 20th century, some 20 Indiana companies chiseled out southern Indiana limestone by the metric ton, shipping upwards of 80 percent of “all the building stone used in the United States,” according to a summary history published Joseph Batchelor of Indiana University in the 1940s.
Thousands of workers labored to carve out specialty blocks of limestone that became the Empire State Building in New York City, as well the Pentagon and numerous other federal buildings in Washington, D.C. Demand was so great that these Indiana companies were driven to put to use then-nascent technologies, including the then-rare use of electric-powered equipment.
Communication between the many quarry sites – most spread-out multiple miles apart in hilly terrain and linked only by substandard roads – represented a major challenge. It was here in southern Indiana that an innovator named J. K. Johnston hit upon a unique solution. A then-prominent telephone engineer who subsequently designed independent telephone networks throughout Indiana, Johnston designed a unique network to improve productivity and safety. He connected the busy quarries through a then-truly novel means: the telephone.
From the erection of communication cable across southern Indiana sprang the creation of the Smithville Telephone Company. While the heady limestone days are long gone (except for a brief resurgence to carve new limestone to repair the Pentagon following the 9-11 terrorist attacks), the critical need for fast and reliable communication capacity still exists.
Today, Smithville specializes in 21st century high-speed fiber broadband. Thousands of residents and businesses in southern Indiana still need connection, but now at the speed of light. Through those 100 years, several lessons emerged. Allow me to share five such thoughts with you.
Intelligent risk in innovation transforms – Smithville, along with other rural telecommunication providers, once depended solely on copper-based connectivity. But in the early 1990s, long before other providers, Smithville took a major risk. Patricia Earles, the then-owner of Smithville (and mother of the current majority owner Darby McCarty), saw the potential of a shift to an all-new communications technology based on fiberoptics. She saw the future when other telcos were content with current copper connectivity. Leveraging the business agility of a family-owned business, Patsy took on significant risk and initiated Smithville’s first investments into fiber technology. That built the foundation for Smithville’s nationally recognized fiber network today.
Making a Real Difference in Education – Distance learning today is commonplace, but not long ago, that concept was theoretical in nature. In 1993, Smithville and Indiana Bell (today AT&T) captured state and national attention by jointly creating a first-ever multi-school educational platform powered by fiber optics. Through this innovative video platform, language educators in Germany could teach rural Ellettsville students German in real-time. When Smithville switched on the first link, top educators from the Indiana Department of Education, Indiana University and other educators from Monroe and Greene counties were present for the historic occasion. Indianapolis Star coverage marveled at “the first network in the state to link schools from different school corporations through interactive audio and video.”
Leading in Creating Opportunity – Closing the gap for a now $100-million rural tech park – In 2005, organizers and supporters of what is now the WestGate@Crane Technology Park were frustrated. A major defense company was prepared to be the first tenant in what were then cornfields in transformation. Much was at stake. The defense company would only move into the park if high-speed secure fiber connectivity was available. Watching this potential development during a time of possible economically perilous military base closure, Smithville stepped up to absorb the risk with a stand-alone six-figure fiber investment in the nascent rural park. “Smithville was a ‘lifesaver’ in those days, and we were and remain very appreciative of their willingness to make a high-risk commitment to punch in fiber in what was then essentially bean and corn fields,” said Ron Arnold, then-executive director of the Daviess County Economic Development Corporation (DCEDC).
Leveraging Public-Private Partnerships – The possibility of a for-profit telecommunications company directly collaborating with a Rural Electric Membership Corporation was once considered improbable. Through thoughtful leadership, Smithville was able to partner with not one, but two southern Indiana REMCs to jointly accelerate the planning, construction and lighting up innovative rural fiber service. The experience has empowered other strategic partnerships and collaborative ventures.
Companies Are Only as Good as Their Employees – Smithville has long championed high standards of mutual performance for company operations and employees. Smithville employees went far above and beyond expectations during the COVID-19 pandemic. When service demand for high-speed secure connectivity rocketed up with fresh needs for remote work at home and school, Smithville technicians and staff responded with innovative means to provide physical home connectivity to gigabit-capacity connectivity while maintaining safe distancing. The company also installed several free Wi-Fi hot spots to serve rural residents who did not have adequate high-speed internet connectivity.
The point? As a privately held company, Smithville learned early on that a commitment to real innovation and humbly doing what it takes for outstanding customer and partner service were essential for success. One hundred years ago Smithville’s primary purpose was connecting rock quarries that were supplying limestone for America’s critical infrastructure. Today it includes securely connecting together Indiana’s companies, employees, students and more at the speed of light to great opportunities. With this proven commitment to innovation and a great workforce, Smithville will be ready for the next 100 years.
Cullen McCarty is executive vice president of Smithville. Visit https://www.smithville.com/ for more information.