109-year-old Wisconsin phone company is paving the way for the future of broadband

CS Technologies/Cuba City Telephone Co.

Incorporated: May 5, 1913

Current location: 121 N. Washington St., Cuba City, Wis.

Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday. Closed on weekends.

Employees: Five in Cuba City, 31 total in Wisconsin and Iowa.

On the Web: cubacitytel.com

Call: 608-744-2154

CUBA CITY, Wis. – Telecommunications came to Cuba City in the early 1900s, when crews established a single-line connection between Hazel Green and the city.

Florine Drug Store boasted the first phone in town, and other phones followed. The Cuba City Telephone Co. was incorporated on May 5, 1913, and the journey of one of the region’s oldest companies has continued into the rapidly changing present.

“A lot has changed,” said Donn Wilmott, CEO and general manager of CS Technologies, the name of the company that operates the telephone companies in Cuba City and Belmont. “At first there was a phone line between here and Hazel Green. It was voice communication. Now it’s about bringing broadband to every home, to everyone.

The business was located in the back of the pharmacy in 1913, moving to the Cuba City post office in 1924.

When the Charles Bartlett family bought the company around 1926, there were 21 rural telephone companies in the area, in townships like Elk Grove, New Diggings, Smelser, Benton, Hazel Green and Jamestown, according to IRS records. business. Local farmers owned and maintained the lines.

The Cuba City Telephone Co. took ownership of these lines in 1930. The company continued to grow with technology, and in 1955 an automatic electric dialing system replaced an antiquated battery switchboard system.

The pole lines were replaced with buried cables in the 1970s, after the company was sold to Universal Telephone Inc. Central Western Communications Inc. purchased the company in 1977, and by 1986 Central Western had purchased Belmont Telephone Co ., and the two southwestern Wisconsin. companies were purchased by the current owner, LICT Corp., in 1991.

“We keep ‘telephone’ in the name because to a lot of people that’s how they know us,” Wilmott said. “We call ourselves ‘CS Technologies’.”

Wilmott has overseen the two Wisconsin companies as well as the company’s telecommunications operations in northern Scott County, Iowa for the past 10 years. Wisconsin and Iowa operations began working together in 2011.

“When mapping software became so big, we were able to put it all on a common server,” Wilmott said. “We could merge the billing platforms and put this on a common server and we’ll share it.”

Wilmott said he firmly believes that businesses grow or die.

“We constantly have to recreate ourselves,” he said. “The phone industry will never go back to how it was. Telephone lines have become an application, they are no longer a product. They go away. The only thing that will survive all these changes will be the data pipe entering the house. With it, you will put applications like voice (communication), video, telemedicine, work from home – these will all be applications.

Wilmott said COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of the company’s current and recreated role as a broadband internet service provider.

“There are people more focused than ever on telemedicine, online banking, online consumer transactions, online video streaming and now online education and working from home,” he said. he declares. “There was some of it (before the pandemic), but all of a sudden it became mainstream. All of this ability to connect at home in a meaningful way is what broadband is. »

The latest iteration of the 109-year-old company is working to boost broadband in the region. The utility recently completed a fiber optic project to boost broadband internet speeds, rolling out to 1,524 structures in and around Cuba City. The company completed an initial phase, connecting to 884 structures within the city limits of Cuba City, in 2018.

“They set Cuba City apart with their fiber installation,” said Bob Jones, director of economic development for Cuba City. “It has meant so much to our schools and businesses. They were exceptional. They have been great partners for us.

The first phase was approved by the company’s board of directors in 2016, with construction beginning in 2017.

“From the time you get approval, there’s probably a full year of work behind the scenes – engineering, ordering materials, bidding for a contractor to do it and awarding of this offer,” Wilmott said. “None of this was subsidized. It was just a company saying it was time for us to do this as part of our future. Doing this per house in a city of 884 was an investment we made on our own. Making that same type of investment in a rural area, where you sometimes have three to five houses per fiber mile, is a whole different story.

Wilmott said the cost of completing the 884 homes in Cuba City was less than $3,000 per home.

“Costs have gone up,” Wilmott said. “Today, in a similar situation, if I can do it for $4,500 or less (per house), I’m fine. That $3,000 became $4,500. When you go to a real rural area, it’s not uncommon to see that (the cost per house) is between $12,000 and $24,000 (per house), depending on the number of houses and the number of houses per mile. All of our facilities are underground, we are not on poles, so there are inherent costs there.

State and federal broadband initiatives help fund the spread of broadband to rural areas by providing support to small rural providers.

A second phase reaching rural areas surrounding Cuba City included another 640 homes.

The company announced further expansion in Belmont, reaching another 872 homes. Construction on this project is expected to begin in the spring, with full conversion of previously used copper lines by the end of 2024.

“They went above and beyond every time,” Jones said. “Every conference I attend I hear about communities trying to bring fiber optics into their community and here (in Cuba City) there is a company that has done it without us having to do anything else than to say thank you.”

The company is applying for a state grant that could expand the company’s broadband network to areas in and around two other southwestern Wisconsin communities.

“We want to do things in Benton and Hazel Green,” Wilmott said. “Hopefully this will add over 1,700 more homes to our network.”

State funding would support the extension of broadband to rural areas considered “underserved” by fiber optic lines.

“Rural (projects) wouldn’t happen right now without government help,” Wilmott said.

Bonny J. Streater