Think back a moment to 1987. Hard drives were measured in megabytes, and not many of those. There was no wireless network, no Internet. To make a call, you had to use a clunky hunk of plastic attached to the baseboard by an umbilicus of copper wire. CDs were the cutting edge delivery system for music and television offered 30, maybe 40 channels through another box plugged into the wall.

For Dennis Bone, president of Verizon New Jersey, 1987 is less a period of dark technological sorcery than a perfect example of how no one knows the future, even from inside the very industry that is forging so much of it.

"If you think back 20 years," he says, "I don’t think we could at all see the kinds of innovations that would be around today." No one then foresaw the Internet, much less MP3s or wireless networks and broadband. The sheer size and speed of technology today, he says, has made possible radical ideas that were not merely science fiction in the 1980s but simply impossible to even conceive. And 20 years from now, it is likely to be the same story.

Bone will bring his perspectives on the roaring growth of technology in the telecom industry to the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, March 6, at 11:30 a.m. at the Princeton Marriott Hotel. He will present "Communications, Transformation, and Innovation," a brief lecture followed by a Q&A session on the communications revolution and market in New Jersey and around the country. Cost: $45. Call 609-924-1776 or visit www.princetonchamber.org.

Bone has always been connected in some way to what powers the nation, though in his youth, it was decidedly more low-tech. Raised on a farm in the southern West Virginia town of Dry Creek, where his mother and siblings worked, Bone’s father was a coal miner. In 1973, Bone graduated from the West Virginia University Institute of Technology, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics. He also holds an MBA in finance and economics from Rutgers, and a master’s in counseling from Johns Hopkins University. In 1979 Bone joined New Jersey Bell as an outside plant engineer and worked in operations, competitive assessment, rate planning, and regulatory matters before being named vice president-external affairs for Bell Atlantic-New Jersey in 1993. Prior to the Bell Atlantic / GTE merger, he was president and chief executive officer of Bell Atlantic-West Virginia. He was named president of Verizon New Jersey in 2000 and lives with his wife, Denise, and their three children in Madison.

Bigger, faster computer technology has created a digital world in vivid, high-definition color and razor sharp sound. However, says Bone, the crux of his industry is not so much the increasingly complicated technology that goes into Verizon’s services, but rather what it represents – what the people want. "The innovations and their uses are what people are demanding," he says. "People love applications that simplify their lives."

The continuously changing marketplace, he says, is driven by this very principle. "We’ve seen dramatic changes in the competitive environment in the last few years," Bone says. Verizon’s chief rival, the cable and satellite networks, countered the telecom giant’s expansive digital cable packages with heftier packages of their own. Now, with the FiOS fiber-optic network opening the doors to previously unheard-of access to Internet, television, and telephone services – Verizon’s answer to Comcast’s vaunted "Triple Play" deal – the cable companies are fighting back with hundreds of channels and competitive rates. Bone says he is "absolutely convinced" that the response from the competition would never have happened had Verizon "not taken away thousands of their customers."

Consumers, Bone says, are increasingly demanding package deals. "People want convenience and simplicity," Bone says, "and the technology behind it makes your mind boggle." Back when you picked up a phone, heard a dialtone and punched in numbers, he says, technology was easy – lots of copper and metal. "These days it’s far, far, far more complex," he says.

So far it has been working well for Verizon, which is winning big with its ability to link Internet and video capabilities to cell phones, stretch the bounds of broadband, and make access to entertainment and information easier. This itself is Bone’s answer to the idea that technology is fracturing society. "I just point out that this technology helps people communicate, it helps them work from home, get an education at home, get access to healthcare. It frees people up to live their lives."

Bone also addresses the irony that mind-boggling technologies require a very human touch from those who physically have to run wires or lay network lines in the ground. "I wouldn’t classify it as high-tech versus low-tech," he says. "We need pipes and wires and cell towers. These are essential building blocks, and this is where we stand out. Our image and our reputation lies in building great networks."

Building those networks, he says, is by no means low-tech, even if the end product is made to work simply by throwing a switch. Bone says Verizon has spent significantly on hiring and training in New Jersey to make sure its workers know how to understand some of the technology that goes into those items that are designed to simplify our lives. The company, in fact, has bucked the downsizing trend in New Jersey, where it has hired more than 3,000 new employees in the past three years.

Staying competitive, Bone says, requires a lot of planning, a lot of money, and a lot of anticipation. By year’s end, Bone says Verizon will have rolled out 100 high-definition channels, directly in the face of Comcast’s similar offering. The difference, he says, rests in the FiOS brand, which incorporates those channels into more than just a television package. He expects a response from the various angles in the telephone, television, and Internet worlds.

Beyond reading up on the competition, Bone says ideas come from the old-fashioned idea of meeting people. If the digital world has removed certain social obligations from society – think of online shopping or running through the self-checkout at the supermarket – it has not taken away the basic need to talk to people face to face and hear what people outside the telecom world really want.

"I love to get out and meet and discuss," Bone says. "I love to get into the Q&A and find out what people are thinking."

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