In this AP photo from 2021, workers in Washington state bring broadband internet to homes in a rural area. Credit: Ted S. Warren / AP

Unity telecommunications company UniTel was sold last week to an Idaho-based broadband provider that plans to rapidly expand fiber-optic internet service in the region.

Direct Communications of Rockland, Idaho, purchased the company for an undisclosed amount of money.

“I think it’s a positive move in the right direction,” Unity Selectman Penny Sampson said Tuesday. “It’s a third-generation family company that is investing in rural areas.”

In that regard, Unity and Rockland, Idaho, are similar. Both are rural places that don’t have the kind of connectivity options that an urban area would. Rockland is a farming town of 300 people, and when the company expanded into fiber-optic in the early 2000s, it quickly found a niche in offering broadband internet services in small, far-flung communities.

“That is our goal — to be able to gap that digital divide between rural and urban areas,” Kalee Ralphs, the marketing manager for Direct Communications, said. “We really want to expand fiber in rural areas. Let’s take fiber to the ones that have been overlooked. The ones that need it.”

Currently, UniTel is an internet service provider for Unity, Albion, Knox, Thorndike and surrounding towns. It offers fiber service in some areas, and DSL, which is a slower internet connection, in other areas. The company also provides residential and business phone service to its customers.

Ralphs said her company will start by realigning UniTel’s pricing structure.  

“We’re going to create more fiber packages at lower levels, so that it’s more accessible to all customers. Lowering the price and lowering the speed,” she said. “We’ll provide more speed packages to accommodate more customers. That’s the first step.”

From there, the company will get to work building out its fiber-optic infrastructure.

“We would like to get fiber to as many people as we can as quickly as we can,” she said. “We are a quick-moving company. We have no intention of slowing down.”

Direct Communications, which also owns a smaller telecommunications company in Louisiana, wasn’t necessarily looking to expand in the northeast, she said. But UniTel seemed like a good fit.

UniTel currently offers fiber internet to home users, and Direct Communications intends to build on what already exists in order to bring speedy internet access to as many people as possible.

“They were a telecom, and we got our start as a telecom. We have similar growth patterns, and we were looking for a company with a strong employee base,” Ralphs said. “We kept pursuing it.”

That kind of forward-looking approach would look familiar to former UniTel owner Bert Clifford, a Unity businessman and philanthropist.

After returning home after serving in the Navy during World War II, Clifford worked on the family dairy farm and later served as a letter carrier, bus driver and Unity postmaster. In the early 1960s, he began acquiring stock in the Unity Telephone Co., and became the majority shareholder in 1963.

Clifford turned the small telephone company into a million-dollar business. It became the first telephone company in New England to have a fully digital central office network, and in the 1980s, he ventured into the cellular phone business, which is something that the company no longer offers.

Clifford and his wife, Coral, shared much of their fortune with the community in ways both large and small.

He helped to found Unity College in 1965, after he and other local leaders brainstormed ways the town could avoid rural decay. He built Field of Dreams, a community recreational area on the shore of Unity Pond, generously funded the local health center and constructed Clifford Common business park in downtown Unity. He also carefully restored the 19th century farmhouse and barn in the middle of town that became the Unity College Centre for the Performing Arts.

The Unity Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded by the Cliffords in 2000, still works to support nonprofit organizations in Maine.

“They were very generous to the town. Not just to the town, to the college, and to individuals as well,” Sampson said.  

After Clifford’s death in 2001, UniTel’s assets became part of the Unity Foundation. In 2013, Laurie Osgood, who had served as the company’s president and CEO since 2003, purchased it from the Unity Foundation.

The sale to a new UniTel owner does not faze Sampson, who said it’s not the biggest transition the town is facing right now. Unity has been grappling with ongoing changes at Unity College that include having far fewer students living on campus and circulating around the community.

“The college and everything there is so up in the air,” she said.

In contrast, the situation at UniTel seems very positive to her. Two UniTel employees came to the Unity Selectboard meeting on Monday night to talk about improving the town’s broadband offerings.

“We know the future is in fiber optics,” Sampson said.

Bringing broadband to the whole town would cost about $1.5 million, she said. Some Maine towns are using their American Rescue Plan Act funds to help them expand their broadband internet, but Unity wants to go in a different direction. The town has money in a special tax increment financing fund that it can use for expanding broadband, and the town’s economic development committee is recommending that Unity spend about $75,000 from this fund to do so.

Whatever amount the town spends will be matched by UniTel, Sampson said.

“With that, we have skin in the game, which would make it easier to get grants,” she said.