Incumbent Telephone Company

Rural Telephone Service Co., Lenora, Kan.

The sophisticates on either coast may be surprised to learn whats happening in Americas heartland: Kansas Rural Telephone Service Co., led by General Manager Larry Sevier, not only developed broadband services for widely distributed areas, but figured out how to compete successfully with the regional incumbent to extend its services into neighboring communities.

Begun as a traditional telephone cooperative in the 1940s, Rural is anything but traditional today. The company created a separate subsidiary, Nex-Tech, to provide cable TV service and Internet access to its customer base. Rural is now three years into its deployment of DSL gear, and has branched out to provide service in the neighboring towns of Hayes, Norton and Alamena — all of which are served by SBC Communications.

Each town invited Rural in to provide advanced services the incumbent wasnt willing to offer. Rural has signed up about 95 percent of the households in Alamena, a town with 400 residents, for voice or data service. The company just opened its doors in Norton, population 3,000, and about 80 percent of the towns households have asked for service.

Rural works with customers too far from the central office to receive standard DSL, offering to split the cost of extending the service to them. The company uses cutting-edge vendors, such as Optical Solutions, which offers fiber-to-the-home using passive optical networking, and Occam Networks, a new player in broadband-enabled digital loop carrier systems. The focus is on helping businesses in rural areas and small towns thrive where they are, and on aiding economic development. Rural provides the kind of hands-on customer service that larger telephone companies cant in rural areas.

"I am delighted to see that they offer customers an opportunity to split the cost of upgrades with them, so that those who really want DSL and can afford it can actually get it," Mine says. "I am also gratified to see companies that are leading the real revolution — bringing broadband services to those communities that the Bell companies fail to be able to justify in their business plans."

Others receiving votes: BellSouth, Iowa Telecom

Previous winners: NBTel (2000), Telus (1999), U S West (1998)