STARTED IN 1999 AS TECH VALLEY COMMUNICATIONS, FirstLight Fiber quickly established itself by choosing to build out fiber networks when it was not popular to do so. The company expanded across the Northeast and Upstate New York and now has Plattsburgh-based Primelink as one of its most recent acquisitions.
FirstLight provides fiber-optic data, Internet, data center cloud and voice services to enterprise and carrier customers throughout the Northeast. It now offers approximately 24,000 route miles of fiber network to over 16,000 customers.
FirstLight’s acquisition of Primelink was not a surprise. Adding the North Country to its network just made sense logistically since it was already servicing Vermont, Montreal, and most of Upstate New York. The North Country helped fill in a gap that existed between the areas where it was already working. FirstLight took over the Competitive Local Exchange Carrier (CLEC), part of Primelink focusing on servicing businesses, while Primelink still controls the ILEC (Incumbent Local Exchange Carrier) division of the business that serves residential customers.
Primelink is just one of the many small fiber-based companies that FirstLight has acquired since it started to expand in 2010 when Riverside Partners acquired Tech Valley Communications. It was not until 2013 when the company integrated with Tel Vermont-based TelJet that the company rebranded as FirstLight Fiber. That is when both Maura Mahoney, chief marketing officer and Patrick Coughlin, chief development officer, joined the team.
Unlike many large businesses that absorb smaller companies, FirstLight does not lay off employees but rather looks to see what those new employees have to offer. It offers opportunities for advancement. Mahoney noted how acquisitions were not just about fiber assets but about people. “When you lay off employees from the previous company, you lose what is special about that company because their ideas and input are important.” That is how both Mahoney and Coughlin ended up at FirstLight themselves.
What FirstLight Offers
FirstLight prides itself on the quality of its customer service and strives to be known as a vendor that is friendly, flexible and thinks outside of the box. Every week, the management team announces the average answer time for all service centers. While larger companies have call centers across the country, FirstLight customers can be assured that the person they talk to when they call in knows their area. “Everyone that works with FirstLight has a real passion around serving our customers and their communities, and being responsive, and accountable,” Mahoney added proudly.
Although FirstLight is a smaller company when compared to some of its competitors, it is confident it can provide the same quality of product. It offers a carrier grade fiber network along with a complete set of solutions for North Country businesses including voice services, high speed internet with bandwidth up to 100 Gbps, managed edge routing and firewalls, cloud-based backup and disaster recovery, and DNS protection. Voice and high-speed internet are their most sought-after services but they have a number of add-on services available to help meet the needs of small businesses in our region.
FirstLight will go the extra mile to understand what services a business needs. The company prides itself on how easy it is to navigate its services, and customers will never be rushed off the phone.
When the pandemic hit, FirstLight offered a suite of services for customers to transition to working remotely, including increased bandwidth. The company understood how stressed customers were and did its best to cut timelines down dramatically. “There was an unbelievable need,” Mahoney said.
Expanding FirstLight in New York State
Although FirstLight has locations throughout New England and recently started expanding into eastern Pennsylvania, its densest network is in Upstate New York. It does not shy away from expanding in rural markets and is actively investing in places like the North Country. It has been successful in Albany, Binghamton, Rochester, and Syracuse and is continuing to invest in expanding services at an unprecedented speed. In 2018, FirstLight was proud to build 1,000 route miles in one year, its highest at that point. In 2019, it built out 2,000 route miles and last year, it built out 4,000 route miles. “We are absolutely investing in this network to the benefit of our customers,” Mahoney explained.
FirstLight does not take state or federal money to expand its services to underserved areas. Instead, the company invests in these buildouts itself. It participates in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s initiative, begun in 2015, to provide broadband to all New Yorkers by offering middle mile support to those who received awards through the Broadband Program Office run by the Public Service Commission. Coughlin noted how the pandemic has increased attention on the lack of access to broadband in rural areas and emphasized how FirstLight will continue to embrace the Governor’s attempts to connect New Yorkers to broadband.
Despite FirstLight’s commitment to broadband expansion, it struggles with issues posed by the state that make it increasingly difficult. There are new taxes and fees including fees from the Department of Transportation added in the past year that are impacting all internet providers, big and small. It can also be difficult to follow specific timelines for buildout plans because it can take a long time to get permissions for right-of-ways when building infrastructure.
With these and other issues, companies have trouble getting a return on investment, especially in rural communities. Coughlin looks forward to what the next round of funding for broadband will bring but wonders if private investment is the better approach to expanding in rural areas. “It remains to be seen,” he said.
Despite these challenges, FirstLight is still excited at the prospect of expanding services in the North Country. It has found success in our region and has established relationships with important organizations such as the Development Authority of the North Country (DANC) and will continue to build out where it makes sense. FirstLight sees opportunity here and looks forward to offering an alternative to larger internet providers for North Country businesses.
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