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March 24, 2023

The Cumberland Connect Story

The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch. The Broadband Bunch is sponsored by ETI Software.

Joe Coldebella:

Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Broadband Bunch. I’m Joe Coldebella, and we are at Calix Connections 2022 at the Win Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada. Joining me is Kaitlyn Bonds, the creative director at Cumberland Connect. Kaitlyn, welcome to The Broadband Bunch.

Kaitlyn Bonds:

Joe, thank you so much for having me. I’m happy to be here.

Joe Coldebella:

Awesome. Really excited to talk with you. I know that you and I have been emailing back and forth and finally have you on the show, so really excited to share your story, about the Cumberland Connect store. Before we get to Cumberland, I would love it if you could just give the audience just a little bit of background about yourself, and your broadband journey. I always find that really interesting when people share those.

Kaitlyn Bonds:

Oh, well, thank you. Yes. So I was very grateful to join the broadband space back in August 2019 when I joined the Cumberland Connect team and Cumberland Electric Membership Corporation. They brought me on as the creative director, and so that’s what began my broadband journey. But prior to that, I’ve had roles in marketing, sales, social media management, and creative roles, you name it. And so I was really excited to bring all of that background and really a passion for just being a part of the community and making a difference. So it’s been an exciting journey.

Joe Coldebella:

Awesome. No, it’s funny, that’s actually how I found my way into the broadband world as well. I came from a marketing and advertising background, and then just by hook or by crook, they pulled me in, and here I am doing a show and chatting with you.

Kaitlyn Bonds:

I love it.

Joe Coldebella:

So I would love it if you could just give us sort of a 30,000-foot view of Cumberland Connect in terms of the company itself, the community you serve, and anything else you’d like to add.

Kaitlyn Bonds:

Oh, absolutely. So Cumberland Connect is the broadband subsidiary of Cumberland Electric Membership Corporation, and CEMC is our local electric co-op in Middle Tennessee. We serve over 106,000 electric meters across five counties, and we’ve been serving those areas for just over 80 years with electricity. But we saw, wow, there’s a need for a reliable internet service. And so when Cumberland Connect was founded in 2019, we began fiber construction and officially launched in May 2020 taking our first fiber subscriber. So here we are today.

Joe Coldebella:

Wow, that’s great. I just would love to just, what was the reaction from the community when they heard that they were getting fiber. I’m sure the pandemic was sort of the flint that started the fire saying, hey, listen, let’s pump the brakes folks, and let’s get some fiber because our community really needs it.

Kaitlyn Bonds:

Well, prior to the pandemic, the sentiment was excitement. We do serve some very rural areas, and a lot of those members, of course, said, yes, we need internet. Some of those members had never had internet in their homes before. They had no internet options, so of course they were really excited. Then the pandemic happens, and of course, the need that was already there just became even greater. So we are constructing our network from the ground up, which takes time.

Joe Coldebella:

Sure.

Kaitlyn Bonds:

We’re building over 5,500 miles of fiber, so yes, yes, it is a monster. But we projected a five-phase over about five calendar years and so even during the pandemic, we still continued working as fast as we could. To date, we serve over 18,000 fiber subscribers and we are still going strong.

Joe Coldebella:

Wow, that’s great. 18,000 in that short amount of time just must be super gratifying for everyone at Cumberland.

Kaitlyn Bonds:

It really is. For me, I always say that it’s a labor of love because one of the unique things about us is that we are locally owned, so we are serving truly our neighbors, our friends, our family, and those 18,000 subscribers, those are my own friends and family, and it makes me feel good to know that I’ve been a part of helping make their lives better and what’s better than that.

Joe Coldebella:

No, it’s great. And I bet you they are your best advertising tool. Just from all the interviews that we’ve done, it seems like word of mouth is one of the best sorts of tools to be an advocate for you. Is that the case with you guys as well?

Kaitlyn Bonds:

Absolutely. And honestly, as a marketer, word of mouth, that to me, that’s what I want. That’s what I’m going for. That is the best form of marketing and advertising because I would much rather a subscriber choose Cumberland Connect because they heard how great it was from someone that they trust. From a friend, from a neighbor, from a coworker, then from reading it from a postcard or a Facebook ad that I send out. Those are important too, but word of mouth, there is power in that.

Joe Coldebella:

Right. No, they’re billboards along the way to sort of tap the person on the shoulder and say, hey, listen, there’s something coming your way. It’s time to get excited. It’s time to focus because we’re bringing you something that everybody needs. Because as we enter this digital economy, it’s going to be vitally important for everyone to be connected.

Kaitlyn Bonds:

Absolutely, absolutely. And part of marketing something like this, to me in my eyes, it’s about spreading the information, sharing the why behind our story, which is serving our communities. Building that brand awareness, but then letting people give it a try, and then they take the story and they share it with the people that matter most in their lives.

Joe Coldebella:

Well, also, the incredible thing about when you bring fiber to these communities, it’s kind of incredible in the sense that they go from almost a standing stop to full speed ahead where they’ve never had any access to any type of internet. And then now they’re getting stuff that places in major cities don’t have. What sort of reaction do you get when folks have access to gigabit service?

Kaitlyn Bonds:

Yes, we do provide gigabit service, and honestly, the reactions I’ve heard are mixed. They’re excited, they’re always excited of course, they’re so grateful. But when you have those rural communities, those homes that have not had technology like that, sometimes it can be intimidating. And I had someone say, “Kaitlyn, I feel like I’ve got to be a rocket scientist to use this fiber.” and I thought, “No, absolutely not. We’re going to make this simple.” So education, I feel like is a really big part of what we do as well.

Joe Coldebella:

Well. Right. No, that’s a great point is that we have all this money coming into the broadband universe and it’s we got to build, we got to build, we got to build. But hey, listen, there are folks that have never really had a lot of contact with it, especially in rural areas. And there are urban areas where they might have had a mobile phone but not internet and so teaching those basic things are supercritical.

Kaitlyn Bonds:

I absolutely agree. And beyond that, technology is changing every single day. So look beyond even teaching the basics, and making sure that you’re proactive in helping your subscribers get the most out of this amazing service you’re providing. So as technology changes and evolves, make sure that your subscribers are aware so they can get the most out of those services.

Joe Coldebella:

Well, and I think that’s so true in the sense that there really is so much that we haven’t even touched the surface on. I think that people when thinking the initial sort of thing with high-speed internet is gaming, I think that’s the first thing or personal use. But I think that telehealth and all these different things are going to be so much more accessible through high-speed internet. I’ve done interviews with folks in regard to telehealth, and I think that’s one area where rural communities should leverage high-speed broadband to build connections with major metropolitan areas for improved healthcare.

Kaitlyn Bonds:

Absolutely. I mean, one of the things that we say at CEMC and Cumberland Connect is we believe that everyone deserves access to reliable, fast internet. And beyond that, everyone deserves access to all the things that today’s world brings and amazing medical care is absolutely one of those. If you’re one of these people that enjoys living out in the country and the quiet, just the amazing views. I grew up in a one-stoplight town. I remember deer walking through the backyard and it was so serene and beautiful, I shouldn’t have to give up something that is a necessity in life just to enjoy living in that area.

Joe Coldebella:

And it’s definitely a theme that we’ve been focusing on the broadband bunch, is that there’s also an opportunity here to repopulate rural areas because it’s one of those things where for the longest time when someone graduated from high school and went off to college, they really didn’t have an opportunity to come back because there just wasn’t the opportunity there. But now people work remotely, or if they get a job in a rural area, but their spouse is like, “No, listen, I can’t give up my job.” Now there’s an opportunity for someone to move back may be closer to home to parents, and there’s a real opportunity there.

Kaitlyn Bonds:

I agree. That was one of the things actually that excited me most at the beginning of my journey in the broadband industry, was looking at those studies in places around the country where broadband had been introduced, and seeing the economic development that followed. A lot of times areas saw this incredible spark of entrepreneurialism and small businesses. And again, just the fact that there’s so much remote work in today’s world that, I mean, the possibilities are limitless.

Joe Coldebella:

It is great. If we sort of change channels as it were. You’re out here at the Calix Connections event and you spoke, was it today and yesterday, or just?

Kaitlyn Bonds:

Yesterday during the opening session.

Joe Coldebella:

Awesome. I would love it if you could share with our audience what you talked about.

Kaitlyn Bonds:

Oh, absolutely. One of the biggest things that I am very, very passionate about and that we’ve always tried to incorporate into our subscriber experience is just that, being purposeful in our decision-making at Cumberland Connect to always remain member-centric and to keep subscriber experience top of mind. And one of the ways that we try to do that and differentiate ourselves from the competition is to really embed ourselves in the community and leverage our local presence.

And one of the examples that I gave yesterday is, again, talking about education, is that we’ve really tried to provide resources to our members and our subscribers to ensure that they not only feel comfortable with the technology that they’re bringing, that they now have in their homes but also they get the most out of it. And we’ve recently launched what we’re calling our Streaming 101 workshops for our communities.

We’re actually going out and hosting onsite local workshops for our members and subscribers to come in. And sometimes it’s more of the aging demographic that is looking to discover what streaming is, but we’ve got a really great cutting-the-cord toolkit that we’ll actually sit down one-on-one with our members and we’ll talk them through the tools that they need, and a lot of times how much money they save when they transition to streaming.

So again, just helping them see with amazing fast internet, you can get a lot of the content that you love or all of it even using streaming platforms rather than traditional cable TV.

Joe Coldebella:

That’s great. So it’s one of those things where so education is really important. It’s one of those things, it’s one more sort of thing now it seems like has Calix been helping with that process as well.

Kaitlyn Bonds:

This particular project is one that we’ve done internally, but I will say that Calix has been such a vital help to us because I’m sure so many in the industry, we run a lean marketing team. And so Calix does provide a lot of tools and a lot of support that allow us to do the traditional and even digital marketing that allows my team to then focus on some of those direct engagement initiatives like the workshops.

Joe Coldebella:

Awesome. Hey, so this has been a phenomenal visit.

Kaitlyn Bonds:

Thank you.

Joe Coldebella:

As we wind down, I’d really like to ask all our guests two questions. The first one is sort of a reflective question, and I don’t know, since you guys are so new, but it’s our back-to-the-future question. And what I’d like to ask the guest is if you could go back in time and I’ll give you the keys to the DeLorean and you could whisper something in your ear, a bit of advice, what sort of advice would you give yourself?

Kaitlyn Bonds:

Oh, goodness. That is an excellent question. Honestly, I would say trust your instincts and just bring the energy, bring the passion. One of the terms that we use a lot is drinking from the fire hose. When you’re building a fiber network, no matter how large the audience, if you want to do it right, it’s a big project. It takes a village. Our partners are really important in that. But for the day in and day out of it, you’re grinding, you’re giving it your all. So I just go back and say, just keep at it.

Joe Coldebella:

Awesome. And then if I could give you our crystal ball question. Obviously, you guys are doing some awesome things at Cumberland Connect. What do you see happening in the next two to three years?

Kaitlyn Bonds:

I’d say probably one of my biggest goals in being a marketer is looking for ways to serve our customers and invest and provide additional value outside of our core business. I think education is going to be a big part of that for us, and just looking for ways to support and elevate the experience for our subscribers. I think ultimately though, what kind of marketer would I be if I didn’t have big goals, so I’m looking for a 100% take rate. That’s what I’m working towards.

Joe Coldebella:

Wow. Do you know what? That’s an ambitious goal, but right, exactly. You know what? It’s your chance to be the giant.

Kaitlyn Bonds:

Thank you. Thank you. Well, our communities deserve the best, so that’s what we’re hoping for.

Joe Coldebella:

Kaitlyn, thank you enough. Thank you so very much for joining us on The Broadband Bunch.

Kaitlyn Bonds:

Thank you, Joel. It’s been a blast.

Joe Coldebella:

All right. That’s going to do it for this episode. Until next time, we’ll see you guys later.