Pine Belt Time Line
In 1877 people in Nashville, Tennessee, heard a telephone ring for the first time, with Birmingham, Alabama, following behind five years later. For many in the Black Belt, home telephone service of any kind was simply out of reach until the late 1950's. And without rural telecommunications companies like Pine Belt, which provides service to five of the 10 Black Belt Counties, a great many people in our community and across the nation would still be without phone service. Pine Belt is one of over 1,000 rural telephone companies and an even fewer number of independently owned and locally controlled cellular companies still operating in the United States. But our story is one in a million.
1901 - 1933
Arlington, Alabama was served by a local magneto telephone system until the Great Depression took its heaviest toll on this area of the country. The community, preoccupied with struggling to survive, let the system fall into a state of severe disrepair.
Sam Nettles, a local sawmill operator, uses money out of his own pocket to build an open wire line from Pine Hill, Alabama, a nearby city that had a telephone company, This allowed him not only to connect Pine Hill’s switchboard to his sawmill office, but extend lines to his home and the homes of his family. For years, this one line was the entire communication network for Arlington, until the new country doctor moved home.
Dr. James D. "Buddy" Nettles moves to the area with his new big city bride to fulfill his longtime dream of being a country doctor. After settling in, he learns that the existing facility could accommodate one more extension on the line his brother Sam built in 1946, meaning he could have a telephone in his house or in his office, but not both. By devising a method using what is called a "knife" switch, he could have telephone service in his office during the day and switch the service to his home when the office was closed. It seemed like a good idea, but when his clinic’s staff began to forget to switch to the house line at night prior to locking up, Mrs. Rose Mary Nettles, who was from Mobile and had attended the University of Alabama, felt she had put up with enough, Dr. Nettles realized that to stay in touch with his patients and, more importantly, stay a married man, he would have to go into the telecommunications business.
Dr. Nettles, who had always believed strongly in making house calls, purchased a two-way mobile radio system in an attempt to achieve better communications with his home and his clinic. Since very few of the homes he had to visit had telephone service, the radio system seemed an ideal way to stay in touch with his home and office. However, it quickly became evident that this method of communicating was problematic. At the time, the Federal Communications Commission required that all two-way radio equipment be calibrated annually. The closest service shop to have this done was in Birmingham, a 135 mile drive away, and belonged to Mr. Jerome Tanner, the one man he knew with the license, expertise and equipment to do this. One day while at Mr. Tanner's business, Dr. Nettles noticed a Kellogg Relaymatic switchboard that Mr. Tanner was working on. Dr. Nettles' curiosity got the best of him and he refused to leave that day without finding out what the item was, how it worked, and what were its applications. Dr. Nettles quickly saw that a 100-line board like this could serve the Arlington area well. Some quick investigation revealed that he could buy six-pair rural distribution wire from Superior Cable Company of Hickory, N.C., which seemed ideal for connecting houses with the board. However, once again there was a problem. When he asked the owner of the Pine Hill magneto system if he could connect his planned Arlington system to her board, the idea was turned down.
Facing the problem of no communications other than the restricted radio system, Dr. Nettles felt he had to persevere in searching for a better way to connect the area. That was when he bought a 100 line board and 70 telephones from a liquidation sale. The board had no long distance circuitry and a very low tolerance for loop line resistance but once again, he got his hopes up. However, in the process of constructing the outside plant to connect this new contraption to his customers’ houses, Dr. Nettles realized that he knew very little about the required plan specifications. Luckily, he was able to hire several men on strike from Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph, who went on to build approximately 10 miles of aerial plant.
Between delivering babies, Dr. Nettles tended to his infant telephone company. One day, while dickering with a man from Chicago over telephone equipment, he had to excuse himself, saying that he would call him back because he had a very urgent “labor problem to take care of”. When Dr. Nettles called back, the man seemed baffled, asking just what kind of labor problems could someone have with only a handful of part time employees. Upon learning that Dr. Nettles ”labor problem” had to deal with a woman having a baby and not employees on strike, the man was amused and repeated the story for years.
After several months of operation, it became evident that, once again, additional improvements were needed. Dr. Nettles bought a 100 line Relaymatic Board from Kellogg-ITT that had the required circuitry built in. It was around this time that Fidel Castro confiscated over $80,000,000 of ITT’s assets in Cuba soon after seizing power. ITT was happy to sell their equipment to any one at bargain prices in order to recoup as much of their losses as possible. Following installation of his new ITT equipment, Dr. Nettles began doing business as Arlington Telephone Company, with 37 subscribers, his much happier wife Rose Mary as the office manager and an elderly man named Nunny York taking care of the outside plant repairs and maintenance.
Dr. Nettles reorganizes his growing business, naming it Pine Belt Telephone Company, Inc. As his company grows, he acquires the Sweet Water Telephone Company of Sweet Water, Alabama which served the southern portion of Marengo County and a small part of Clarke County. Pine Belt's present exchanges and company boundaries remain today as they did in 1958 following this merger.
Marvin Cooper of ArrayCom, Inc. demonstrates use of the first portable cellular telephone, a Motorola DynaTAC, called the "brick phone" in New York City. The phone weighed over 2 pounds and cost nearly $4,000.
Dr. Nettles' son, John C. Nettles, begins working at Pine Belt at age 14. As a teenager, John worked for Pine Belt throughout his high school and college years until he graduated from college in December of 1981. "Pretty much whenever I was not in school, I worked at Pine Belt in a variety of technician jobs...apprentice type activities...learning whatever I could about the technical side of the industry through observation and doing. I never was allowed to work in the business office (with air conditioning) during that era because Daddy didn't think that would do me much good later in life and although I didn't really appreciate that at the time, I now truly understand and am thankful for the lessons he taught me then."
Pine Belt Telephone Company eliminates its last party-line and becomes one of the first local telephone companies in Alabama to offer single party service to 100 % of its residential customers.
John Nettles graduates from the University of Alabama and receives a commission in the US Army. He serves as a maintenance management officer with the Army from March 1981 until August 1988.
The federal courts order the break-up of AT&T Long Distance and Local division, an event generally referred to in the industry as a divestiture. This set the stage for the competitive telecommunications landscape of today.
Ameritech, the "Regional Bell Operating Company" established by the AT&T divestiture to serve much of the upper mid-east, establishes the first FCC licensed commercial cellular system in the Chicago area.
John Nettles leaves active duty service and accepts an offer from his father for full time employment at Pine Belt Telephone Company. "My first inside job with the company," Nettles says with a smile. John was vice president of Pine Belt.
Pine Belt Telephone Company partners with several other independently owned local companies to participate in the FCC cellular lottery for rural areas of Alabama. The partnership receives licenses for an 11 county area in West Alabama and begins operating under the trade name Southeastern Cellular. Southeastern Cellular is the first company to offer cellular telephone service in the area.
John earns a Master of Business Administration degree through the University of Alabama's Executive MBA program.
Prompted by a change of control of many of the original partners in Southeastern Cellular resulting in a shift in much of the strategic decision making process, Pine Belt elects to sell its partnership interest. Pine Belt reinvests the proceeds from this sale to form the foundation of today's Pine Belt Wireless operation.
Pine Belt Wireless begins operations of a DirecTV franchise servicing residences and businesses in Marengo and Clarke counties and begins the planning process to develop the first cellular telephone system for Marengo and Choctaw counties.
At age 73, Dr. Nettles, the founder and president of Pine Belt passes away. He was still practicing medicine and active with the rural phone company he founded in 1958 working closely with his son. At this point, John became the president of Pine Belt. Rose Mary S. Nettles (wife of Dr. Nettles) continues service to the company as Vice President and Secretary/Treasurer.
Pine Belt completes construction of its new company headquarters building in Arlington, Alabama.
Pine Belt switches on its first cellular site supported by three towers in two counties, Marengo and Choctaw, as local citizens begin noticing additional cellular towers going up in their communities.
Pine Belt starts a local dial-up Internet Access system, connecting Arlington, Dixon Mills, Sweet Water, Nanafalia, Butler, Linden, Demopolis, Thomasville, Camden, Pine Hill and Catherine to the information highway.
Pine Belt sells its DirecTV franchise to raise capital needed to convert its cellular system from analog to digital and to expand the system to cover the Selma Basic Trading Area, which includes the counties of Dallas, Perry and Wilcox.
Eleven additional Pine Belt cellular towers go up, expanding wireless coverage to Dallas, Perry and Wilcox counties.
Pine Belt announces a multi-million dollar expansion of their wireless telephone network and soon 30 new towers join the 16 Pine Belt towers already looming here and there on the local horizon. For the first time, customers can rely on their wireless phones to work when they leave the larger towns of Marion, Selma and Demopolis to travel the sometimes lonely roads of communities in the five-county area.
Pine Belt announces they will offer High Speed Internet service to all areas where the company’s home phone service is provided, and begins installing remote "wireless" High Speed Internet service to select communities outside the home phone service area.
Construction complete on two additional towers.
Pine Belt Turns 50. When asked if she ever imagined her son taking over 50 years later, Rose Mary Nettles commented, "Our son John was about two weeks old when we incorporated and I wasn't thinking ahead 50 years. As time progressed, he did show signs of being mechanically minded so in my mind I began to see the possibilities. I'm very proud of him and his achievements."