From Phone Lines to Online: DirectLink Leaders Reflect on 25 Years of Change

This is the first in a two-part series in which The Canby Current spent time interviewing current DirectLink President Paul Hauer, along with his predecessors Keith Galitz and Rich Ares, all of whom remain active members of the Canby community. Part 2 is available here.

Canby Telephone Association, better known as DirectLink, the Canby-based cooperative provider of telephone, internet and other services, has a long history of service to the area, one that can be traced all the way back to the Macksburg Mutual Telephone Association, which operated a four-line switchboard in 1904.

Much has changed since those early days, but perhaps the greatest shifts have come in just the past 25 to 30 years with the onset of the digital age and rapid proliferation of online and wireless communication.

While many of those who lived through these turbulent technological times may remember being surprised by just how fast computers and the internet would come to rework every aspect of our society and daily lives, the leaders of DirectLink saw it coming — more or less.

Rich Ares stepped into the president’s role of what was then known as the Canby Telephone Association, or CTA, in 1996, taking the hand-off from the legendary Eugene “Larry” Cole.

A visionary lover of technology, Cole had spent nearly three decades as the general manager — and later, president — of the Canby co-op, helping build it into one of the most progressive telecommunications companies in the nation.

CTA was one of only three telephone companies in 1981 to be granted a waiver from the Federal Communications Commission to provide cable television services, in 1996 it launched dial-up internet service, in 1999 was one of the first in the nation to provide high-speed cable modem internet service and in 1989 the first to launch voicemail services in the state of Oregon.

But in the mid-90s, a major paradigm shift was barreling down the horizon — and Ares saw the signs.

“Cellular — you could see it was coming,” Ares recalled. “And co-ops and small telephone companies all over rural America were trying to get new [Federal Communications Commission] licenses for cellular service in the rural areas.”

Photos courtesy DirectLink.

It meant a tricky balancing act for Ares and his team — one that would come to characterize many of the sea changes to come in the next 25 years or so.

“Being small, we were not on the cutting edge or bleeding edge, as some technology people say,” he said. “The really large companies were doing that, and the new upstart companies, not your traditional telephone companies so much as the new entrants. You see, I started in the telephone industry in 1963.”

Ares credits his predecessor’s technological expertise and foresight — along with a two-year mentorship he conducted under Cole prior to taking the reins — that helped ensure CTA was well-prepared for the digital revolution.

His major focus as president, then, was not on technology but an older and more important art.

“My biggest challenge was customer service,” Ares said. “We were in a period where the industry was undergoing a lot of major changes and, as a small company, we didn’t have the buying power that the large corporations had. But we still had to keep up.”

Adding to the difficulty was the fact that CTA was not only Canby’s telephone company but also the area’s primary provider of cable television services — albeit under a different company name as the result of an earlier acquisition.

“At the same time, we were going from orders being written on paper and pen to computer systems and all that,” Ares said. “We had a lot of long-term employees that really struggled with some of those changes. But we worked on that for quite some time before we made some really good progress on it.”

Like his predecessor, Ares was a longtime veteran of the telephone industry, having started in 1963 — which might as well have been a different world.

“Everything was mechanical,” he remembered. “If you dialed a nine on your phone, something would move nine times and then go find an available line to go to the next digit and the next digit until it connected to your home or business. … Toward the end of my tenure, I knew it was time for me to retire. It was a young person’s industry.”

Photos courtesy DirectLink.

As carefully as CTA approached new technology during those turbulent times, the company and its board of directors were just as thoughtful in finding and transitioning its leaders.

They struck gold with Keith Galitz, a former general manager at Qwest/US West who replaced Ares in 2005 and would serve CTA, which soon began doing business as Canby Telcom, for almost a decade.

By then, the techno-revolution was well underway — and there was no stopping it. Galitz recalls a busy era of simply working hard to keep up.

“Broadband, we understood it was coming. But I think I was still caught by surprise in how fast the demand for speed ramped up,” he said. “Copper was pretty slow: 30 [megabytes], 40 meg, 50 meg. We started putting in fiber and we got up to 100 meg with fiber, and you thought, ‘Wow, we’re going to really hit the nail on the head here.’ But no, they wanted a gig.”

Transitioning Canby Telcom’s system from copper lines — the telecommunications industry standard for more than 100 years — to fiber optic cable (which can carry more than 1,000 times the bandwidth) was one of the most significant and consequential undertakings in the company’s history.

“The deployment of fiber was probably the biggest change and the biggest project we’d taken on in a long, long time,” Galitz said. “But it put us in a position where I think we were probably a premier provider of broadband.”

Ironically, while Canby Telcom was grappling with the decrease in landline telephone subscriptions due to the rising popularity of wireless communications, it was investing significant resources in upgrading its infrastructure with high-grade fiber for high-speed broadband service.

“Voice was starting to go away,” he remembered. “The cellphone was taking the place of the landline phone. And really, voice was going to be just one application on the broadband pipe, along with a bunch of apps on the same pipeline.”

In Galitz’s role as president, the biggest learning curve was not emerging technology but the unique role of independent telephone companies like Canby Telcom. Having toiled in the heights of corporate America for more than 25 years, it was not a world he knew well.

Photos courtesy DirectLink.

He credited his predecessor, Ares, as well as then-board Chairman Don Peterson and attorney Roger Reif, with successfully bringing him on board.

“Rich Ares was amazing,” he said. “I was with a large company for 26 years, so I had a different perspective. Rich took it on himself to help me come into the community of independent telephone companies. He introduced me to all the community leaders as well as the associations we belong to. And that was very, very helpful.”

Galitz believes his corporate experience helped Canby Telcom better diversify its customer base during his tenure, from being heavily weighted toward residential users to being more evenly split with businesses and corporate customers.

The company also made a major acquisition in 2007, purchasing the Mt. Angel Telephone Association, another independent cooperative utility with a long history of community service.

“It was a third-generation family-owned business, and it was a big deal that they trusted us enough to sell us that business with a promise that we would continue to keep the values that they had,” he said. “And I think it’s really improved the services they’re getting down there.”

The fiber rollout that began under Galitz would continue under the watchful eyes of his successor, Paul Hauer, who stepped into the role in 2013.

The previous year, Canby Telcom had become one of the first companies in Oregon to launch 1 gigabit (1,000 Mbps) symmetrical high-speed internet service and had committed to a multi-phase plan to bring fiber to its entire service area, including rural outlying communities.

“It’s really part of meeting the needs of the co-op members as quickly as possible,” Hauer explained. “It was about five years ago that we ventured out on this big fiber build-out to the rural parts of the exchange. And it’s really managing and getting that out to every member as quickly as possible because everybody wants it.”

Photos courtesy DirectLink.

Coming into his role, Hauer had the benefits of serving as the company’s chief financial officer for a couple of years prior to being named president, as well as taking the reins of a well-run organization.

“There weren’t any big surprises, certainly nothing negative that was unknown to me,” he explained. “Canby Telephone has always been a leader in the industry, and I’ve been in the industry for a while, so even though I saw it from afar, it was pretty apparent.”

Canby Telcom and Mt. Angel Telephone were both rebranded to DirectLink and unified within the Canby Telephone Association Cooperative. DirectLink has seen the launch of a number of new services and major projects, not to mention the myriad challenges brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, which drastically and immediately changed the way people use the internet and other services the company provides.

DirectLink has survived — and thrived — thanks to a strong corporate identity and morale that Hauer said he has worked hard to help foster throughout his time as president.

“I think I’m most proud of the employees really coming together,” he said. “I’m not saying that everything is perfect, but for the most part, the information flows and the interaction with the employees is great. There isn’t such a siloed view of how the company is put together.

“So, I would say the thing I’m most proud of is the culture, the way the employees have rallied together. We’ve taken on some huge projects over the last nine years.”

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