A PIONEER OF COMMUNICATIONS

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A PIONEER OF COMMUNICATIONS
How One Man is Changing the Face of the Internet in Oklahoma

By Heide Brandes

Samual Curtis of Oklahoma City has a dream, an ambitious goal to make Oklahoma a center of the Internet in the United States.

Curtis, co-founder and co-owner of AtLink Services LLC, a wireless internet service provider headquartered in the former Lucent Technology plant, wants every residence in Oklahoma—especially the underserved rural areas of the state—to have access to broadband, and he wants big industry and the major telecommunication companies to have a proper place to meet and connect to one another. He wants Oklahoma to become an information hub, a powerhouse in the business of selling and exchanging data bits.

Riding his Harley to the office, Curtis is doing just that. Today, Oklahoma City is poised to become one of America’s leading data hubs, and he’s enabling remote areas of the state to connect to the world, in many ways helping to eliminate the concept of “remote rural.”
For Curtis, who is part musician, part motorcyclist and all engineer, the idea started with a simple problem.

ATLINK’S ORIGINS

Curtis, a licensed engineer specializing in telecommunications engineering, is a successful manager of the Midwest’s largest independent wireless ISP, AtLink Services.

Communications is a family tradition in the Curtis genealogy. Sam’s father, Clayburn Curtis, worked for Southwestern Bell and BellCorp. Sam grew up in both Oklahoma City and New Jersey, but returned to graduate from Choctaw High School when his father was reassigned back to the Sooner State.

But telecommunications wasn’t Sam’s dream. He majored in music, math, and physics during college. Although music was his passion, he realized he needed to “get serious” and look to other lucrative areas to make a living.

“My dad worked for Southwestern Bell for 20-plus years, and in 1987, he started his own engineering firm,” said Curtis. “It was natural that I worked for him. I gravitated toward telecommunications.”

His father taught Sam the ropes from an early age. With blood in their veins from the Kiowa and Cherokee Nations, the Curtis men were also pioneers in building a communications infrastructure for several Native American tribes in Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico.

Curtis started AtLink in 2005 because his father-in-law was frustrated with the slow speeds he was getting from his ISDN connection at his house on a golf course.

“My father-in-law was paying $150 a month for slow internet at home,” Curtis said. “I told him I could probably order something and put it on the club house to help him out.”

Sam placed a tower on the club house that would broadcast a faster internet connection to the houses nearby.
That solution worked well, and soon others were asking for service. Sam obtained backing from two Oklahoma independent phone companies—and a company was born.

Approaching 10,000 customers today, Curtis says he grew AtLink “one house at a time,” mostly by referrals. His network of 200 towers includes 32 funded by a stimulus loan-grant from the USDA’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s program.

With backing from the AtLink owners, including the non-regulated subsidiaries of Hinton Telephone Company and Cherokee Telephone Company, Curtis and his team are executing a plan to triple the size of AtLink—customers, income, profits—over the next eighteen months.

“We buy the data bits directly and then sell to customers,” said Curtis. “There is no middleman. What we did at my father-in-law’s place then is what we are doing today all around Oklahoma.”

“We have an operating plan called Project 80 in which we will add 80 more towers to our network,” said Curtis. “We want to boldly go where no modem has ever gone before.”

AtLink’s chairman, Kenneth Doughty, president of Hinton Telephone Company, said his company is happy with AtLink’s growth and its service to rural Oklahoma.

“For nearly ten years, we’ve looked forward to this day,” Doughty said. “Our expertise and Sam’s engineering talents serve residential, commercial, and wholesale broadband customers, and now our shared dream of helping create a robust carrier hotel for Oklahoma is being realized at OKCWorks.”

MAJOR PLAYER

Curtis, who also owns an engineering firm, Specialty Telecommunications Services, LLC, is strongly committed to the old Lucent Technologies factory in western Oklahoma City, now called OKCWorks, and Curtis is helping the complex’s owners evolve the 1.9 million-square-foot facility into a place where major internet companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter can host very large data centers. The Lucent plant at one time built phone switches and employed nearly 10,000 employees. Today the factory is is a fitting place for a new communications company to flourish.

Oklahoma has several excellent data centers that would benefit from a meeting point where big business and big telcos can interconnect, speeding data to each other and around the world. The absence of a viable carrier hotel and meeting point in Oklahoma City hurts the economy of Oklahoma and forces corporations to look to Dallas or Houston for locating their activities, Curtis said.

To host a data hub, a company needs space, security, and infrastructure, including multiple sources for connections to the internet, electric power, and water. OKCWorks fits the bill.

“When you go to Walmart, you can buy a switch or a router for your home network,” Curtis said. “The switch really doesn’t do much of anything with data bits, they’re not processed in any way. Oklahoma City right now is just such a switch on a bigger scale. Our vision is to provide Oklahoma City’s first carrier hotel where connections, peering, and routing are encouraged and facilitated at a reasonable cost. At a time when the demand for bits is soaring astronomically, Oklahoma is being left out of the conversation in many ways.”

Having such space, infrastructure, and management in place means more connections and options for businesses.
Curtis said, “Bandwidth for companies is one of the biggest costs they have. By providing a major data center and carrier hotel, we lower costs for everyone, and we will pull commerce to Oklahoma.”

Curtis is a co-owner of Rack59, a data center at OKCWorks located in Lucent’s former data center. With 70,000 square feet of space, it’s large enough to handle the meeting-point requirements of the carriers and to host corporate and state data processing equipment. OKCWorks has brought fiber optic cabling into the building owned by four major service providers, including the Oklahoma Community Anchor Network (OCAN), managed by OneNet.

As more fiber is brought in, companies can more easily connect to one another, building shortcuts in the internet, making a Netflix connection or a Google search faster for urban and rural Oklahoma.

Ron Ward, Managing Member of OKCWorks and a well-known Oklahoma developer, said, “We have leased the east and west warehouses of this plant to companies that can make good use of them. The front offices have been completely upgraded to make available Class A office space, and that’s filling up fast. Our concept for the central building, the original Lucent factory, is to fill the space with large, independent data centers and IT-related businesses. Large quantities of power, abundant communication avenues, and secure, strong buildings make this property a unique opportunity for large data users.”

For Samual Curtis, that means the future for Oklahoma’s telecommunications and data centers is bright. Between running companies and providing internet across the state, he also makes time for his busy family and to ride his motorcycle—most recently down South America.

“This is an intense and interesting time,” he said. “But I’m always looking for ways to spend more time with my music.”

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