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Verizon's FiOS, cell services gain as land lines decline

Dennis F. Strigl, a pioneer in the cell phone industry and a top executive at Verizon, doesn't believe in Buffalo's low-tech reputation.

Industry surveys have said the area wasn't fast to adopt cell phones or Internet service. Strigl, who grew up here, says the reason is lax efforts by the early cellular carriers, not a techno-bumpkin population.

"This is a very good market for us," he said.

Verizon invests heavily on high-end technology here like fiber-optic cable to the home, and is seeing rapid adoption, he said. The "FiOS" technology available here isn't yet for sale in Manhattan, he notes.

As the No. 2 executive at Verizon Communications, Strigl is one of Western New York's contributions to the top ranks of the business world.

A long-time manager in the industry's wireless side, he was named chief operating officer of Verizon Communications in January. That put him in charge of operations at the nation's largest telecommunications company, whose $75 billion in annual sales puts it at No. 18 on the Fortune 500.

The promotion capped a career in telecommunications that began at the former New York Telephone hub in downtown Buffalo. He worked there as a salesman while finishing his business degree at Canisius College. Later, he earned an MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University.

A licensed pilot, Strigl had planned to work for an airline, but the pay at the phone company was double the $350 a month that United and American were paying back then for entry-level jobs. And selling equipment for a monopoly wasn't a hard job -- if you wanted telephone service, you had to buy from Bell. His career took him to Chicago with Ameritech, where he helped roll out the nation's first commercial cellular network in 1983.

Now the class of '74 grad flies his own plane -- a speedy single-prop from Mooney -- and visits the area about once a month as chairman of the college's board of trustees. During a visit earlier this month he spoke with The Buffalo News about the region's business climate, and how changes in telephony might play out for consumers.

Q: Some people compare the monopoly Bell telephone market with the cellular industry today. Under the industry's "walled garden" model, cellular carriers tie customers to their service with proprietary phones and service contracts. Recently there's talk about opening up the cellular airwaves to different carriers. Do you think the cellular market open up?
A: I think the idea of a walled garden means a lot of different things to different people. In the wireless market, people talk about open access, which means you can put anything you want on a wireless network. For a carrier that's fraught with issues -- how much bandwidth does it require, will it cause decline in service for others.

Everybody wants into the wireless business and they want open access until they're there -- then they're not interested in open access any more. They'd love to share in a successful revenue stream.

Q: Google is planning to introduce an open software platform for cell phones that will let people access Google search and mapping services on their phones. Will that help open up the system?

A: I think it's good for the business. Google has a great reputation. Open access is key to them providing their software. But once Google is in and operating, I wonder just how open they will be.

Q: If cell frequencies are thrown open to all sorts of providers, could there be problems similar to spam on the Internet?

A: The wireless industry needs to be concerned about advertising [being sent] to people that don't want the ads, concerned about inappropriate language that may be sent to cell phones. People relish their privacy. We work hard to make sure that people continue to have privacy.

Q: Customers of AT&T can use the iPhone on that network, but not on yours. Is that one of the downsides of the walled garden model?

A: It is a popular phone, but I think it causes innovation in the industry, and I think that's a good thing for customers.

For example . . . we will introduce a product I think is very competitive with iPhone called the Voyager. I've been using it -- it's every bit as touch-sensitive as iPhone. It also has QWERTY keyboard, which iPhone does not have.

Q: How much text messaging do you do?

A: I probably get about 50 a day, send and receive. A mix of business and personal.

Q: While wireless phones are booming, the traditional wire-line business is losing customers. What is the future for old-fashioned phone service?

A: The traditional core telephone business is shrinking, it is full of competition. However at the same time, our core business is renewing itself with FiOS (fiber optic) video and data service. We are competing vigorously, fiercely with cable companies. FiOS is a very good product . . . and customers are buying it.

Q: Surveys show that cable subscribers want a la carte service, so they can get the stations they want and not pay for hundreds of others. Will that ever happen in the TV business?

A: FiOS has a number of packages, but yes, it is not what some refer to as a la carte. That is probably not a revenue model that works. The way video [and] TV works is, you must have deals with content providers. Usually it is the content providers that provide you with ability to conveniently package. At least to my way of thinking, there probably isn't a stand-alone package of [channels] 2, 4 and 7 that works for a cable company.

Q: As a top officer of a Fortune 100 corporation, what do you think Buffalo can do to improve its business climate?

A: The business climate for us here in Buffalo is very good. Both on the wireless side of our business and telephone company business we are investing heavily in Western New York. This is a very good market for us -- that's why we rolled out our FiOS video service in Buffalo before many other places in New York state. If you think about it, FiOS is not available in the borough of Manhattan yet, and it is here. Buffalo has been very quick to adapt.

Q: That's interesting, because the perception is that Buffalo is a bit behind on the technology curve.

A: I don't believe that. Places like Roswell Park, the biotechnology industry here . . . We may have issues with the weather in Buffalo . . . but it is a super highway infrastructure here. What other city can you get from the airport to downtown in 20 minutes? You don't see that.

When I come to Buffalo I hear about jobs leaving Buffalo. I have no doubt, but there are also jobs being created by high-tech businesses here. I feel good about this economy. I'll admit I'm a little bit biased -- I went to Sweet Home High School and graduated from Canisius [College].

Q: You are a downhill skier, and it's said you make calls from the chair lift at ski resorts to test Verizon's signal availability. Is that true?

A: Yes.

e-mail: fwilliams@buffnews.com

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