Groton - As a college basketball player who once jostled on court with superstars Kevin McHale and Erving "Magic" Johnson, Thames Valley Communications chief William H. Pearson knows something about being an underdog.
But Pearson, the 6-foot-8 chief executive of the former municipal cable company, isn't easily intimidated. While he never beat McHale or Johnson as a forward on the University of Wisconsin basketball team in the late 1970s, Pearson doesn't flinch at taking on another nationally recognized entity, Comcast, in the cable, phone and Internet market.
With a stake in one of the only cable markets in Connecticut where there is direct competition, Pearson said he sees no reason why Thames Valley, known as TVC, couldn't command half of the customers in its coverage area. The market includes Gales Ferry, Groton, Mystic, Stonington and Pawcatuck.
"All you have to be is as good as the other guys," said Pearson, a Groton resident. "We think we're better in many ways."
It wasn't always this way. Pearson said that when he took over the company from the City of Groton on Feb. 1, things were in a bad way. The city had not invested in new technology, resulting in slow Internet speeds and few on-demand TV options, he said.
Last week, Thames Valley announced that it had launched a new TVC On Demand option that replaced the "obsolete and unreliable" system previously in place. The new service offers more than 5,000 television episodes and movies, most of them available free of charge.
That's about 10 times the number accessible under the old system acquired from the city. And Pearson said the company continues to add 100 to 150 new titles every day. The company also has added high definition television channels and expects to reach 75 to 80 HD offerings in the coming months.
Pearson said CTP Investors, which paid $550,000 to acquire TVC, has invested heavily in bringing service up to par. Among other improvements, he said, were free upgrades to TVC's Internet service, which he claims are now faster and less costly than Comcast's alternatives.
"We've done a lot in the last seven months," he said. "We really wanted to make the investments to make it competitive."
Pearson said the latest upgrades have been well received, and satisfaction surveys conducted after recent installs have been overwhelmingly positive.
While improved speeds and services haven't yet moved the needle on TVC's customer base - a number Pearson would not reveal for competitive reasons - it has stemmed an outflow of cable subscribers that occurred in December and January after it had become public that the city-owned company had debt of $27.5 million.
Pearson, who said there are about 28,000 homes in TVC's territory, hopes to grab anywhere between 40 to 50 percent of the market share. Groton is where the company remains strong, but he said as TVC approaches the Rhode Island border its numbers dwindle.
"In Pawcatuck and Stonington, we have virtually no resources," he said.
TVC hopes to change customers' habits by offering top Internet speeds and lower prices than Comcast as well as a higher level of service. TVC, unlike Comcast, also allows customers to tie into its analog system, which gives them the option of adding televisions without having to get a new box for each one.
TVC is concentrating on residential customers first, improving its operations, before focusing on the estimated 3,500 businesses in the region. The company, which inherited 18 employees from the city, now has well over 30 workers, if contract installers and sales people are included, Pearson said.
TVC also is working on developing new services, such as TV Anywhere, which will allow customers to access channels on their iPods and iPhones. It is looking into the possible launch of a home-security system as well, Pearson said.
"It's important to customers, we have to offer it," he said.
While changing customers' perceptions about TVC might seem a daunting task, Pearson talks confidently about the business. A former director of business development at USWest International who went on to an international career in cable and fiber-optic networks, Pearson said investors in TVC see Groton as a possible springboard to acquire other cable operations around the country.
Key to the business is the Internet. While entertainment viewing may migrate to cheap options such as Netflix and Hulu, the Internet remains a platform that requires a cable delivery system for which people will pay.
"We think this is a great, long-term business," Pearson said. "We need this business to be successful."