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O'Connell Leads Verizon's March to Video

Marilyn O’Connell’s career is, quite literally, moving at the speed of light—thanks to her new role as Verizon senior VP, video solutions. O’Connell oversaw the rollout of Verizon’s landmark fiber-optic cable service, known as FiOS, which delivers video, broadband and voice services to customers.

Things haven't always moved so quickly. In fact, O'Connell's career began with a long, slow train ride from Kansas to New York City during the summer of 1977. The Topeka resident rolled across the country in hopes of landing her first job as a journalist.

Unfortunately, that ride ended with the disappointment of finding out that even entry-level publishing jobs were hard to come by in Manhattan. The resourceful O'Connell, however, threw her energies into a different field, doing marketing for the Independent Insurance Agents of America on Wall Street.

“It was like trying on a new pair of shoes and finding that they're really comfortable,” she says. “I liked the pace, the creativity and the challenge of it.”

“Never a Dull Moment”

Four years later, O'Connell found a new opportunity in California, doing marketing for a business publisher called Merritt Co. That, in turn, led to a job with GTE as a marketing manager for such products as pay phones, pagers and cellular services. Nearly 20 years later, GTE has become Verizon, and O'Connell is heading up one of the biggest service launches in telco history.

“I always thought that I would move around from company to company, but here it seems that, every year or two, I've moved onto a new project that I had to learn,” she says. “There is never a dull moment.”

That has never been truer than now. O'Connell has survived deregulation of the telephone companies in 1984, the Telecom Act of 1996, the dotcom boom and its subsequent bust in 2000—all of which helped her tackle her biggest project yet. She considers FiOS the high point of her career. “There were a lot of people who said we could never do this,” she says.

FiOS is Verizon's ambitious next-generation service that offers customers enough bandwidth for hundreds of digital channels, high-bandwidth Internet access, and voice services at a price point that Verizon hopes will make it the industry's top triple-play threat. It's currently offered only in Keller, Texas, but will roll out in other Texas markets and other states by early 2006.

“We're really at the forefront of doing new and exciting things as the telcos try and transform themselves,” she says. “And while everyone is trying to remind us that we tried this before, this time everything has come together.”

O'Connell and her team have been tasked with not only creating the service but setting pricing, devising marketing and securing content deals. The company's IT, networking and other support organizations all contributed to the effort. Says O'Connell, “I like to say it takes a village to roll out a product with Verizon.”

It also takes a united front to overcome industry naysayers, who said the decision to go fiber was too costly, not to mention too little and too late as the cable and satellite service providers were too strongly entrenched. “I got weary of hearing that we wouldn't be able to get the content deals done, because it's simply not true,” O'Connell says. “Content providers are all about getting their content in front of as many people as possible. Exclusiveness, for the most part, doesn't work for anyone.”

A Decade of Planning

FiOS is the result of more than a decade of planning. In 1995, O'Connell became involved in the company's strategy-setting initiative, which realized that the focus had to shift from voice to data. The think tank gave O'Connell a chance to mull over how Verizon (then GTE) could best address future market needs.

There were some missteps, including the trial of a data service that brought fiber connectivity to within a mile of the consumer. Crossing that final mile, however, resulted in less than optimal bandwidth for customers. And previously, Verizon contemplated building out its Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) infrastructure, which split the pipe in half and used separate halves for downloading and uploading. But there wasn't enough bandwidth available to drive future revenue streams, such as video.

O'Connell pushed Verizon to find ways to make the technology work. “We could have said, let our business go where it wants to, which would have meant just wireless, but we said no,” she says. “We really needed a more robust set of capabilities.”

“The Next Big Thing”

As O'Connell plots Verizon's next video forays, she keeps her management style refreshingly simple: Hire the right people, she says, let them do their jobs, and remain focused on the future. “It's important,” she says, “to free up time so we can think of the next big thing.”

Thinking back to her early days with GTE, O'Connell recalls how the industry collectively believed the deregulation madness was as complicated as things would get. These days, amidst such cutthroat competition on all fronts, those concerns seem trivial. “The issues today are much more complex,” she says. “It's interesting how things have changed as we're dealing with issues I never thought we'd be dealing with.”

Marilyn O'Connell's career is, quite literally, moving at the speed of light—thanks to her new role as Verizon senior VP, video solutions. O'Connell oversaw the rollout of Verizon's landmark fiber-optic cable service, known as FiOS, which delivers video, broadband and voice services to customers.