Btel – History and fulfilling a legacy

Btel, as one of the earliest telephone companies in Texas, is representative of not only the history of the independent telephone industry, but also the history of the state.

Btel currently provides high-speed Internet, TV, broadband, wireless and local phone service to about 7,000 customers in the greater Brazoria area.

As we look at how far Btel has come, we should first look at its history. The following is a snapshot of the history of Btel and telephony from Btel President Charlie Greenberg:

The first telephone in the state of Texas was placed into service in 1878 in Galveston. Our country was new and the desire for being unified was in everyone’s heart. By 1883, the people of Texas were calling from town to town. Amazing! Years flew by and the industry grew.

Several phone companies consolidated operations and Southwestern Bell Telephone Company was formed in 1920. Rural Texas grew. Brazoria had phone service by 1890. Names like Stevens, Weyant, Hinkle and Harris were pioneers in the development of the telephone industry in Brazoria. In 1912, the partnership of Hinkle-Harris sold to two brothers, Homer and Earl Hopkins, who were owners of the local phone company for 29 years. Interestingly enough, one of the original owners bought the company in 1941 when the company returned to Frank Harris. George Harris, son of Frank, operated and managed the company until 1946.

Our story begins in 1946. Charles Hendrix was a lineman in East Texas. His wife, Beulah, began her career in the telephone industry as an operator in Atlanta, Texas. Both daughters, Edith and Phyllis, were attending Greenville High School when their father, Charles, decided to move to South Texas and mulled purchasing Garland Telephone or Brazoria Telephone. No one knows how the final decision was made, but in 1946 Charles and Beulah, along with their son-in-law and daughter Ed and Edith Pewitt, purchased Brazoria Telephone Company.

From that moment on Brazoria Telephone Company has been family-owned. Upon purchase, the company consisted of 100 hand-cranked magneto telephones with grounded lines. Currently, the company has about 3000 voice subscribers, about 3600 Internet subscribers and about 900 video subscribers in southern Brazoria County.

So, the legacy began with Charles as the lineman and Beulah – or Boo – as the operator at the switch board in the front room of their house. With World War II came a shortage of materials and Hendrix was forced to “make do.” Still, by 1956 Brazoria Telephone’s customers had tripled to 300. Hendrix was able to purchase new cable and phone equipment, develop the inside and outside plants and organize the company into a corporation.

Throughout Hendrix’s 61 years in the telephone industry, he wasn’t thinking of leaving a legacy. He just wanted to create a better life for his family. The American dream had been accomplished and he built a dream home to sit back and watch the next generation go forward.

Hendrix taught his grandson, Johnny Greenberg, the ropes of running a telephone company. They were inseparable companions. In the early years, Charles drove Johnny around. Later the driving duties reversed. After attending Texas State University, Johnny became a full-time employee with Brazoria Telephone in 1972. He worked long days and nights, troubleshooting issues and working on the switch at night and on-call every other weekend. He married his wife, Gail, in 1973 and they had three children: Gretchen, Charlie and Rachael.

In 1981, employees received a simple message in their payroll checks with a simple message that Johnny was now executive vice president of Brazoria Telephone. Johnny heard the news at the same time as other employees. In August 1981, Hendrix passed away and his wife, Boo, took on the role of president. She handed the baton to Johnny in 1983.

The upward battle to continue his grandfather’s legacy had begun for Johnny and Gail. Not everyone gets a chance to walk the steps of a lifelong dream and contribute to the legacy of someone you love, but it happened. Sharing the implementation of the NEC switch was the last change they shared. Men from Japan were in our Central Office. What a mix with southern accents and broken English and Japanese!

The 1980s marched on with the introduction of fiber optics in Angleton, Sweeny and Old Ocean as well as a large aerial-to-buried-copper cable project, remodeling of the central office, a 600-foot tower and the construction of a new service center.

With the 1990s upon us and new technology and customer needs, the traditional telephone company began to transform.

New ventures became commonplace for Brazoria Telephone Company and Greenberg. The NEC switch was retired to make way for the 5ESS and allowed for more modernized, and effective management of voice traffic and feature-rich services. While equal access for intralata calls prompted for great financial concern, but that concern proved an unexpected twist. A DirecTV franchise was purchased and grew to more than 7,000 subscribers before it was sold in the mid-2000s.

Brazoria Telephone, as part owners of GTE Mobilnet, spent a number of years in the wireless space. Brazoria Telephone also built an expansive fiber optic network throughout the territory to support transport between each distribution service area to support multiple landlines per home for dial-up Internet service.

Still, Greenberg was committed to working tirelessly to expand and grow Brazoria Telephone beyond just traditional voice service. While Gail was home raising three children, Johnny was preparing to position Brazoria Telephone Company for the next chapter.

With the 2000s, the telephone industry began moving at very rapid speeds. While voice service was still the primary and preferred method of communication, DSL became a household name. By 2002, Brazoria Telephone had 80 DSL customers. Expansion of the DSL access network and Internet access continued – not only for Brazoria Telephone, but for a local cable competitor, which provided cable Internet and video service in Brazoria, parts of Lake Jackson and Freeport. In 2008, Brazoria Telephone purchased the cable provider and rebranded it Coastal Link Communications.

The 2010s marked the next transition of the family legacy for Brazoria Telephone. In 2013, Johnny Greenberg entrusted his only son, Charlie Greenberg, to the role of president. Just like his father, Charlie began his career at Brazoria Telephone by making some big changes. But Charlie saw some unprecedented challenges. Early in the decade, DSL grew, as did the network with the installation of a modern Metaswitch soft switch to bring the next generation of voice and data services on a common platform.

In 2015, Brazoria Telephone was rebranded “Btel” to unify the companies and employees.

In 2016, portions of Btel’s service area experienced tremendous flooding and employees worked around-the-clock to restore the network and customers. In late 2016, Btel began the arduous process of converting and consolidating all billing and operational support systems (BSS/OSS) into one system. The process was grueling, but after 18 months of perseverance, all of Btel was on one system – but not without some challenges.

While many thought the 2016 flood was a once-in-a-lifetime event, Hurricane Harvey in August 2017 proved otherwise. With only two months until the BSS/OSS conversation was going to be complete, Harvey made landfall 70 miles south of Brazoria in Rockport. While Brazoria itself didn’t suffer any direct hurricane damage, the subsequent flooding wreaked havoc on a substantial amount of the network. Restoration efforts began immediately and lasted about three months. The outpouring of support from fellow telecommunications companies across the country was remarkable.

Btel’s BSS/OSS conversion moved full steam ahead and was completed on October 30, 2017. On February 21, 2018, Btel officially began a fiber-to-the-home build to about 2,900 homes in Brazoria.

The past is written and the ink for the future is wet, but one thing is for certain, the legacy exists and continues to grow. The family is, and always has been committed to Brazoria, each other and the employees of Brazoria Telephone Company.