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Q & A Donna Cupelo of Verizon, on phone firm's fiber-optic future

Verizon Communications Inc. says that starting this year it will begin rolling out in nine states super-fast fiber-optic connections that may be 10 to 50 times faster than conventional residential broadband connections and capable of carrying video, phone, and Internet services. Skeptics note Baby Bells have made -- and broken -- information superhighway promises over the years, but Verizon last week named Corning Inc. and three other firms vendors for the project, aimed at homes and businesses. Donna Cupelo, Verizon's regional president for Massachusetts and Rhode Island and a 25-year company veteran, spoke last week with Globe reporter Peter J. Howe about the biggest US phone company's plans for 2004 and reviewed last year's tense labor talks.


Q. What can New Englanders expect to see from the "fiber to the home" project next year?

A. We really have a strategy to look at transforming our business into a broadband communications company and utilize our network in new ways for things that aren't just dial tone. Not only in Massachusetts, but nationwide, we are transforming our network into one that is based on Internet Protocol technology. Our plan is to dramatically accelerate that in 2004.

IP will lay the groundwork for a whole new range of products . . . from voice over IP to customer-configurable voice, video, and data products. Consumers will decide what they want to do with that bandwidth. Some of the services will come from us. Some will be provided by partners.

We're planning to have 1 million homes passed by fiber in 2004. Massachusetts is a possible candidate for some of that deployment, but exact locations . . . will depend on the economic analysis that we're doing right now.

Q. Are your fiber-buildout promises contingent on the Federal Communications Commission not forcing you to rent new fiber to your competitors?

A. I think the depth and breadth of our deployment will depend on some clear guidelines around new technology and new deployment and less regulation. We will continue to deploy fiber as we have successfully in such significant magnitude. But as far as the acceleration of that investment -- which we believe has some real connection to economic development and job growth, not just in our industry but in the spinoff benefits -- we can't do any of that acceleration unless we have clear guidelines.

Q. You were on the brink of a strike for almost a month last summer while you negotiated the new five-year contract with 78,000 East Coast workers. What lessons did Verizon learn?

A. I think the kind of negotiations that transpired this past summer were really groundbreaking from the standpoint of commitment on the part of both management and unions to stay together and work it through. Sometimes companies feel that using a federal mediator is a sign of weakness, but I think we both learned that it was a smart thing to do from the beginning. Having it be a five-year contract instead of the usual three is very significant. Typically in the past, a year after the contract you're healing wounds and getting ready for the new contract. Now we're all focused on the customer for the longer term.

Q. Nearly 10 percent of your work force took an early-retirement incentive last month. How hard has that been?

A. It has been less of a challenge than I think it was built up to be. Sure, it was more than we thought. But it actually has turned into an opportunity for many people who had a lot of potential for future leadership who are now being given the opportunity to take on bigger responsibility and get promoted or work in a different area of the business.

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