CASE STUDY: Northern Alabama Electric Coop Speeds to Broadband Success

Summary

  • In 2020, Cullman Electric Co-op in Northern Alabama launched Sprout Fiber Internet to bring much-needed broadband service to their customers.
  • To Sprout Fiber, long-term success meant managing the service on their own, without consultants or hired guns.
  • Sprout Fiber chose GLDS’ customer management system for its provisioning and scheduling features, saving thousands of hours through its built-in automation.
  • The combined solution of GLDS’s SuperController™ with components of Adtran’s Mosaic One empowered Sprout Fiber to offer a superior customer experience.
  • The result was a successful Phase-1 rollout, with Sprout Fiber securing over 2000 residential and commercial customers, including the regional medical center.

Going with a ‘purpose-built’ for fiber billing, customer management, and service delivery partner was probably the best decision we ever made.

– Mark Freeman

2020: Sprout Fiber is Born

With the signing into law of Alabama House Bill 400, otherwise known as the Rural Broadband Initiative, Cullman Electrical Cooperative realized the opportunity to bring high-speed internet to the rural northern Alabama communities they serve. In 2020 they launched Sprout Fiber Internet, offering broadband service to residential and commercial customers.

Northern Alabama Ready for a Better Broadband Solution

Sprout Fiber was created to serve the city of Cullman and the four surrounding counties. Much of the region could not get any broadband service, and when available, the options were slow and expensive. Existing services were mainly VDSL and cable, with speeds as slow as 10 mbps download and 1 mbps upload. For some areas, options were limited to 4G hotspots or fixed wireless.

The Covid lockdown also increased demand for fast, reliable, affordable broadband service. With kids at home studying (and gaming) online and increased demand for streaming entertainment, etc. Customers wanted better options.

Lack of options was also holding back the local economy. Many commuters to the surrounding metro areas of Birmingham and Huntsville were required to work online from home. The regional agricultural producers were looking to implement apps and monitoring solutions that required utility-grade internet connectivity that only fiber could provide.

Sprout Fiber’s Challenge: Understanding the Differentiators of Legacy Electric Utility Systems

Sprout Fiber believed that long-term success meant managing their broadband service using internal teams and resources rather than relying on consultants and outside support. Tied to Cullman Electric’s values of independence and self-reliance, management also believed this approach would be more cost-efficient.

This played an enormous factor in determining how Sprout Fiber approached customer management and service delivery.

Most electric utilities start off believing their legacy billing solution is sufficient for broadband. Many decide based solely on surface costs without considering the business performance implications. Thus they make their decision without considering the time and resources that go into scheduling, provisioning, and network turn up for broadband services.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” says Mark Freeman, Manager of Network Operations for Sprout Fiber, when describing the dilemma many electric utilities face when determining a customer management solution for broadband.

Broadband is fundamentally different from power.

– Mark Freeman, Manager of Network Operations for Sprout Fiber

After hearing about the challenges faced by other electric utilities that went with their legacy billing systems when launching broadband, Sprout Fiber chose GLDS. “Broadband is fundamentally different from power,” Freeman said. Armed with this insight, Sprout Fiber realized early in the launch process that going with GLDS’ customer management solution would allow them to launch successfully without the need for outside consultants or support.

 GLDS’ Solution: Purpose-Built Broadband Customer Management

According to Sprout Fiber’s Freeman, “Going with a ‘purpose-built’ for fiber billing, customer management, and service delivery partner was probably the best decision we ever made.” GLDS handles all of Sprout’s customer management with a single ecosystem. And with GLDS as a single point of contact for support, Sprout Fiber experienced a smooth rollout.

Sprout Fiber was particularly pleased with GLDS’ scheduling automation and auto-provisioning features. After being guided through a setup process and defining their offerings, Sprout Fiber customers could go online, choose their package, enter payment info, and set an install date in 10 minutes. Choosing GLDS meant no need to integrate different software for scheduling and ordering. Auto-provisioning between GLDS and Adtran’s access system allows Sprout Fiber to automate turning on services between billing and network service delivery. The solution facilitates automatic upgrading of services and expedited non-payment processes and service resumption.  This also made it easy for Sprout Fiber to set up custom packages for enterprise clients like the one they created for the Cullman Regional Medical Center.

Sprout Fiber’s automated end-to-end service delivery and billing were further enhanced through GLDS’ SuperController™ automated service delivery interface combined with components of Adtran’s Mosaic One, a suite of intelligent SaaS applications. Together, these allowed Sprout Fiber to:

  • Target custom offers to users based on their usage behavior;
  • Proactively monitor the network for alarms and congestion;
  • Remotely troubleshoot subscriber connections, minimizing the need for expensive truck rolls.

“We’re thrilled to be a part of Sprout Fiber’s success story. By understanding their market and topography we were able to deliver the hardware, software, and integration with GLDS to help Sprout Fiber to automate functions in the order process,” said Robert Conger, Senior Vice President, Technology and Strategy.

GLDS’ WinForce platform allowed Sprout Fiber’s field techs to quickly and easily service customers by adding any piece of equipment to the network and provision it with the push of a tablet button. Techs rarely needed to get on the phone and work with network people to manually provision. When you consider doing these tasks manually, especially at Sprout Fiber’s rate of 12-20 installs a day, you’re talking about saving thousands of hours a year.

Key Metrics

Sprout Fiber’s Growing Customer Base

  • By the end of Phase 1 rollout, 12,000 of 35,000 co-op customers will have access to Sprout Fiber Internet. So far, 2,000 have signed up.
  • Current customer base: 75% residential, 25% commercial.
  • Adding 12-20 new customers per day.

Estimated Time Savings per Install with GLDS

  • 20 minutes customer service team
  • 45 minutes tech team
  • 30 minutes network team

The Results: A Community with Better Broadband. A Co-op Empowered to Succeed

With Phase 1 slated for completion in Spring of 2022, about 1/3 of co-op members have access to Sprout Fiber’s internet service. Over 2000 have signed up, bringing much-needed fast, affordable and reliable broadband service to Northern Alabama. “Customers’ minds are blown when they go to a gigabyte symmetrical,” says Freeman. Users are thrilled, especially families with gamers. A big part of Sprout Fiber’s customer support surprisingly entails educating customers on the need to upgrade their devices to take advantage of the new higher speeds.

Sprout Fiber currently estimates a five- to six-year build-out to offer the service to all members. And with the regional medical center signed on as a marquee client, the plan is also to grow the number of enterprise customers.

The future looks bright as well. Additional revenue generated from broadband will allow Cullman Electrical Cooperative to invest in smart-meter technologies to serve their customers better. And Sprout Fiber is even considering offering two-gigabyte service in the future.

The lesson is clear: A successful broadband business launch starts with the right customer management solution.

About GLDS

For electric utilities struggling to support a broadband business with a legacy system, GLDS offers a proven, pre-integrated, automated customer management system, complete with most of the tools you need to support a successful business. With GLDS, you set yourself up for broadband success with an effective launch and fewer integration headaches.

About Adtran

Adtran, Inc. is a leading provider of open, disaggregated networking and communications solutions that enable voice, data, video and internet communications for electric cooperatives. From the cloud edge to the subscriber edge, Adtran empowers electric cooperatives to manage and scale services that connect people, places and things. Adtran’s end-to-end solutions will help electric cooperatives unlock their community’s potential. Find more at www.Adtran.comLinkedin and Twitter.

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