TDS Ribbon Cutting Jim Butman

TDS continues to set the pace, rolling out IP video and launching 2 Gig internet services.

It’s been more than 50 years since LeRoy Carlson formed Telephone and Data Systems with a goal to bring the latest technology and top-notch customer care to the areas it served with its telephone services.

Known today as TDS Telecom, the company has grown to 1.2 million connections across its broadband, phone and video services. But the heart that Carlson put into the business can still be felt today, and it is that foundation set by the company’s founders that has allowed TDS to maintain its strength even in the toughest of times.

“This company was started by the Carlson family… we have strong values, and the customer comes first all the time,” TDS VP, marketing and product development Julie Maiers says. That was especially true in relation to the company’s experience weathering the COVID-19 pandemic. “The safety of our employees and the safety of our customers was our star that we were guided by,” she says. “We just had to figure it out, and people are pretty creative under a little bit of pressure.”

The ability to adapt has been visible in every move TDS has made in the last 18 months. The company hasn’t allowed the difficulties that came with the pandemic to deter it from any of its long-term plans. Instead, it kept pushing forward to innovate its video and broadband products, providing customers with everything they needed to work and relax at home.

The company introduced IP video and cloud DVR service TDS tv+ back in June 2020. The product includes a voice-enabled remote control, a revamped user interface and third-party apps such as Netflix. TDS still offers its traditional video service as well to those subscribers who haven’t wanted to make the switch to TDS tv+, but the grand plan is to eventually migrate them all over to the new service.

“There is no question traditional TV customers are in decline. Our product and strategy is to combine the best of traditional and streaming with easy navigation and recommendations across multiple platforms,” TDS president/CEO Jim Butman says. “Our strategy is pretty simple—by having an evolving next generation video product offering, you will gain substantially better broadband market share, and our numbers prove this.”

Balancing new product launches while trying to maintain the performance of existing ones is par for the course for any cable provider, but that became a little more difficult last year. Customer data usage skyrocketed and peak usage times shifted due to lockdowns, putting stress on the network. However, when the team looked at the impact the launch of TDS tv+ could make for TDS employees and customers, it saw plenty more positives than negatives.

“We did try to accelerate our deployment of TDS tv+ during the pandemic just because it was an easier install. There could be more of a customer self-install with TDS tv+, and/or it was a shorter install so our techs would spend less time in a home,” Maiers says. “Accelerating timelines is not easy, especially with a software-based product and vendors, but we did it.”

Customers are appreciating the hard work. When TDS has surveyed subscribers and asked them how important video was in their purchasing decision, approximately 50% of new customers have said that the provider’s video offerings and bundling options were very appealing.

What drove many of those customers to consider TDS, however, was the company’s broadband services. The provider currently offers 1Gbps speeds to 56% of its footprint, including both its fiber and DOCSIS 3.1 markets. Vicki Villacrez, the company’s CFO and SVP of finance, reported on the company’s 2Q21 earnings call in August that 21% of new customers were taking on the 1 Gig product.

“The good news for our industry is that the broadband business will play an important role in that future,” Butman says. “Data usage will continue to grow as it always has and entertainment, education, work and consumption of goods and services will happen to a greater extent from our homes.”

If anything, the trends seen during the COVID-19 pandemic only reinforced the long-term plans Butman and the rest of the leadership team had for TDS. If there’s one word that sums up the provider’s plans for 2022, it is fiber. The company currently serves 39% of its wireline service addresses with its fiber-to-the-home product, and will be offering speeds of 2Gbps symmetrical in all of its new markets.

“We’ve believed in the value and the power of fiber-to-the-home for a long time,” Maiers says. “I think this is absolutely the best technology to the home that we have available to use with symmetrical speeds, especially given the work at home, school at home, everything at home environment.”

TDS is ready to hit the ground running in the new year, having diversified its supply chain and found the quality construction partners it can trust during its next adventure. Though the leadership team has been poring over the details of the new builds, there is still some risk with capital expenditures of this intensity. That risk is exactly what makes the business thrilling for many of them, and they’re enjoying the ride just as much as they will seeing the work completed.

“You know, this is a business that’s not for the faint of heart. You really have to work hard every day and have great construction partners,” TDS SVP, corporate affairs Drew Petersen says. “And when you don’t, you need to make alterations quickly because ultimately, it’s your brand that’s on the line and you’ve got to protect and advance that every day.” 

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