2021 Annual Meeting Manager’s Report
Welcome and thank you all for participating in Sandhill’s 59th annual meeting. This year’s drive thru event is unlike any of the other prior meetings. I will still address many of the concerns of our Members while providing critical information about the welfare of your cooperative. Before I get started, I want to thank all the employees that worked to make this event happen even with all the extra challenges.
Since we were not able to get together last year, I want to start by providing an update on what happened from a technology perspective and how Sandhill continued to progress. The worldwide shutdown led to a rapid increase in online services. From working at home, to virtual learning, to telehealth doctor’s visits, and a vast increase in online shopping, society made a major push towards a more connected world. Just looking at online shopping for example, the growth last year was about 5 to 7 years ahead of where experts had projected it to be in 2019. With such rapid online growth so quickly, Sandhill had to respond at a faster pace than ever before.
For starters, I’m pleased to report that we never missed one single day of providing service to our Members. While we renovated our offices to provide better protection for our Members and employees, we stayed available to respond to all your needs. We made sure that all of our field personnel had all the equipment necessary to ensure that you would feel safe as we entered your homes. We immediately set up 8 free wifi locations throughout the county so that each town would have a safe place to go and get online in the event they didn’t have our service at their homes. We also immediately participated in the Keep America Connected pledge and did not disconnect any Member’s phone or broadband service due to lack of payment caused by any personal challenges. We also offered a one-time $25 broadband bill credit to all teachers, students as well as for new broadband connects. Lastly, we worked with local schools and our technical college to ensure that students had a way to continue their education from home, including a partnership with Northeastern Tech which allows students access to free broadband as part of their tuition while they are enrolled in classes. Despite all the setbacks, Sandhill remained a strong support for the community.
From a financial perspective, we drastically increased our spending to push fiber services even deeper into our communities. In prior years we had been investing $4 to $5 Million back into our community to improve our plant with faster broadband speeds. Last year we tripled that investment to $12 Million and are still working at the same pace this year. Since we last met, we have over four times as many fiber customers as before representing 25% of all our Members now having access to Gigabit services. During this same timeframe we’ve had a 10% increase in Members having our broadband service as more people stayed at home. On top of the huge investment in growing Sandhill, we have given back over $3 Million over the past two years in capital credits at a time where many in our communities need extra help. Between just these two things, that’s $15 Million going back into improving the lives of people in Chesterfield and Kershaw counties just over the past 16 months.
These are just some of the contributions that Sandhill has made in our communities this past year and we are blessed to continue to be able to support our area long into the future.
Shifting gears from the past to the present, I want to spend just a couple of minutes talking about our four main service offerings and what we have in store soon.
When Sandhill was originally established 70 years ago, it was for one goal – to allow all people in our rural communities to have access to phone lines at their homes. All these years later, this still remains one of our primary goals. While we have been able to provide free calling services, and now free long distance, we realize that some people still would rather not have to have a phone line. That’s why this year we started offering two additional choices. Customers can get broadband only now and drop their phone line if they choose and still retain all the advantages of being a Member of the Cooperative. Also, we will soon be offering an emergency phone line option for those people that would like to lower their bills, but still have the peace of mind of having access to 911 in the event of an emergency. While these two options are available, phone lines are here to stay for Sandhill, and I encourage each of you to keep one as protection for you and your family. Even during power outages, this is a reliable means of contact to reach others if you need to.
About 25 years ago, Sandhill embarked on a new mission. Access to other people wasn’t just through talking on the phone line anymore, it was also computer to computer. Sandhill was the FIRST to provide local internet access to our communities and continues to be at the forefront today with our offerings. Since those humble dial-up beginnings, each person in a house typically has at least two connected devices and this is growing exponentially each year. While I will be the first to acknowledge with all the recent changes over the past year that we wish we had even faster speeds for many of our Members at home, the pace we have been building out an advanced fiber network has been well ahead of many other communities our size and we are proud of the growth we have accomplished so far. We are currently expanding into more areas in Pageland, Jefferson, McBee, and Bethune with even more expansion planned for this year in other areas. I’m also pleased to report that we will soon have exciting news for our Members that still have DSL service regarding lower price plans and also more opportunities for reduced billing for lower income households in the near future. Please keep watch for any mailings, Facebook posts, or other advertisements for more details soon!
Our other two service offerings, television and security, continue to remain strong for the Cooperative as well. Until 10 years ago, most of our Members’ only option for television service was antenna or some satellite service that didn’t work well at all during rainy or inclement weather. With leadership from your Board and Management, Sandhill now offers reliable television service 24/7 regardless of the weather. Unfortunately, rising costs from providers has continued to drive up our costs and made us make difficult decisions on which channels to carry. We will continue to provide some type video service to our Members for the foreseeable future. Know that we are looking out for the best for all of our Membership as we keep a reliable television offering for you.
For security, we are the only LOCAL provider of this service and it continues to expand to offer more smart home functionality for our Members. This remains a wonderful add on service that roughly 13% of our Members take advantage of and I encourage you all to ask for more information on what we can offer you today. Even in smaller communities such as ours, peace of mind and protection are more important than ever in our changing world.
In large part, our ability to continue to grow, keep prices down and in some cases even lower prices, and improve our reliability and service offerings has been due to the dedication of your Sandhill employees and direction from your Board Members. With constant technology changes and regulatory changes impacting our business, the need to reach out to other communities for revenue continues to grow. We still stand by our original mission and goal from 70 years ago, to be THE source of reliable technology services to improve the quality of life for our community at a reasonable price.
Before I end, I want to address one final concern for those Members who haven’t been converted to our newest fiber services yet – “when are we going to get fiber and who decides who gets it next?”. We spent years planning and making sure that we had a solid backbone network with multiple levels of redundancy to support our community. This was the first step in our $85M project to rebuild our entire service area. Over the past couple of years, we have doubled the number of fiber crews to begin installing fiber in homes. About half of our total cost for this project is completed. All fiber crews are currently working in Chesterfield County taking care of our long-term Members.
The reason we spent so much time and effort in covering our main routes first is simple – the bulk of the cost of this project is the door to door expense and without a solid foundation, that expense would be of no benefit to the Members until it was done. Put another way, it would be like paving all the driveways in our area but ignoring the main roads and leaving them gravel or dirt. Second, we worked on our more concentrated areas and businesses so that the revenue from those areas would help cover the cost of reaching the most rural areas. We haven’t ignored our rural areas either! We’ve invested a lot of time and money plowing fiber into smaller communities like Middendorf, Timrod, Brocks Mill, and High Point to name just a few. Lastly, we expanded into new communities along our fiber routes to grow revenue even faster to take care of the Members of Chesterfield and Kershaw counties about 5 years sooner that we would have been able to otherwise. Our goal remains the same as it has from when I first spoke with you all years ago, to reach EVERY Member of Sandhill Telephone Cooperative with fiber and take care of all our Members. With the leadership of your Board, this goal of reaching every Member should be completed by 2025 no matter where you live. These next couple of years will be years of rapid expansion to the remaining areas of Chesterfield and Kershaw counties that we serve.
Other Sandhill employees and I are available throughout the year, day or night, in helping to make this mission a reality. We also will continue to provide more information via our magazine, social media page, and bill messages for our Members. If you need more information, please feel free to reach out to us. We continue to be grateful that you choose us to be here for you and grateful to be a part of this community where we also live.
Lee Chambers CEO / General Manager