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GulfPines takes new technology to underserved markets

JACKSON — While the telecommunications industry is highly competitive, GulfPines Communications has forged success by charging into markets where even its largest competitors can’t or won’t go. And, the company is in the midst of a major upgrade in technology that is bringing “big city” services to rural areas of Mississippi and even Georgia.

“We have the technology, and, because we are no where near the biggest telecommunications company, we also have flexibility,” said Hal Pleasants, director of marketing at GulfPines. “So, we can reach areas others don’t want to reach or can’t.”

Continuing history

GulfPines’ focus on rural and/or smaller markets continues the long history of its parent company, Fail Telecommunications Corporation. The company traces its roots back to 1923 when D.L. Fail purchased the Mississippi Telephone Company in Bay Springs. The company is currently headed by the brother-sister team of Cy Fail and Donna Fail Alexander, who represent the third generation of Fails to lead the company.

Originally operated from a spare room in the Fail family home, the company today encompasses five separate businesses, including GulfPines. GulfPines was established in 1996, and was once based in Hattiesburg but is now headquartered in Jackson.

Fail successfully penetrated such large markets as Hattiesburg and Gulfport, but has also grown and gained a solid reputation through serving such small communities as Fulton and Mound Bayou. (Fail operates three independent telephone companies in Fulton, Mound Bayou and Chickamauga, Ga., as well as neXband Communications and GulfPines.)

GulfPines, which today employs 23 workers, offers local and long distance service, data access services and community/planned development wiring, with a host of services provided under each service group. It provides these services to both residential and commercial customers throughout South Mississippi. (Its business services make up a majority of GulfPines’ revenues.)

GulfPines has followed the parent company’s tradition of reaching out to underserved markets, and is still at it today. The company is currently in the midst of a phased, $30-million build-out in North Mississippi. The first phase was centered around Fulton, where GulfPines replaced 70 miles of copper line with fiber, giving the community some 5,000 access lines.

“Now, every customer in Fulton will have access to cutting-edge telecommunication services,” said Chad Whitten, chief operations officer at GulfPines.

Whitten also pointed to work in and around Mound Bayou as an example of GulfPines’ reach. The company is spending $8 million on infrastructure improvements in the small Delta community.

“Mound Bayou probably has never seen that kind of investment ever,” Whitten said.

But, GulfPines works projects much smaller than these. Pleasants said GulfPines was approached by the developers of two subdivisions who had a dilemma. They were building $200,000 to $300,000 homes, but couldn’t find a telecommunications company willing to extend DSL service to the development. GulfPines provided and constructed all the infrastructure to the development, providing owners with broadband and other services they otherwise would not have enjoyed.

Youth has its rewards

Only a decade old, GulfPines is a relative newcomer to the industry. However, Whitten stressed that youth has its advantages.

“We got in the game late, but that means we didn’t invest in legacy hardware like the larger, older telecommunications companies,” he said. Whitten added that competitors are often burdened with this investment, and, thus, do not have the technological flexibility to take on projects that GulfPines can due to cost.

That flexibility got a boost recently when GulfPines deployed new switching technology. The new technology allows GulfPines to deliver business telephone and Internet services in a cost-effective manner. It can also be used to provide the company’s ExpressWay Combo service practically statewide.

A further advantage from the new technology is that the company can now offer local calling to the Gulf Coast area. Pleasants said GulfPines is focusing on the rebuilding efforts in South Mississippi and the Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and that GulfPines planned to continue investing in new equipment and technology.

Both Pleasants, a native of Greenwood, and Whitten, who was born in Tupelo and raised in Pontotoc, come from large-company backgrounds. Both appreciate GulfPines’ small-company feel, where decisions are made quickly and locally, and employees, some of whom have been with Fail for not years but decades, are valued.

“It is a great place to work,” Pleasants said. “It is like being in a big family. That’s the way all the employees are treated here — like family members. I think that is a big reason why we consistently have such high customer satisfaction.”

GulfPines utilizes a wide range of marketing tools, such as billboards, print media and direct marketing, to attract new customers. And, GulfPines is planning for more growth, without forgetting that its flexibility is a major force behind its continuing success.

“We want to continue to grow here in Mississippi,” Pleasants said, “but we don’t want to grow too fast. We expect to see new business from the rebuilding on the Coast and South Mississippi, and we will continue to look at new technology.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.


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