Kevin Wallick, Frontier Communications' new West Virginia operations chief, started fielding customer calls before he even reported for work in the Mountain State.
Earlier this month, a local radio station broadcast a short interview with Wallick, who promised to promptly get back to anyone who had questions about Frontier's service. Wallick heard from folks in remote areas who have tried for years to get high-speed Internet at their homes.
"I'm new in town, but I'm glad to talk to them, Wallick said. "That's my job, and ultimately, I'm responsible for every customer Frontier has.
Monday marked Wallick's first official day on the job at Frontier's West Virginia headquarters office in Charleston. He replaces Dana Waldo, who recently retired after five years as Frontier's senior vice president and general manager in West Virginia.
Wallick comes from Frontier's "mid-states region, which covers Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska. Those states don't have mountainous terrain like West Virginia, but all four states have many rural areas where companies struggle to bring affordable Internet service.
"There are still challenges on how we get from where we are to the customers in that last mile in those farthest reaches, and how we provide a quality service in those situations, and how can we build an infrastructure and support that last mile, Wallick said.
Frontier, West Virginia's largest Internet and landline telephone service provider, has spent more than $500 million to upgrade facilities and improve service since 2010, when Frontier purchased Verizon's statewide network.
The improvements and expansion have made high-speed broadband service available to 90 percent of customers in West Virginia, up from 62 percent five years ago. That amounts to about 190,000 additional households with broadband access.
Frontier also built a statewide Internet backbone network - called a Reconfigurable Optical Add-Drop Multiplexer - designed to help accommodate a fivefold increase in demand for Internet bandwidth across the state over the past several years.
"A lot of the money we've invested was to extend our reach, but also to improve infrastructure to support the exponential growth in bandwidth, Wallick said.
Even so, Frontier continues to receive customer complaints about Internet outages and slow speeds. Frontier customers in West Virginia filed a class-action lawsuit against the company last year.
"Anywhere you have broadband, there are issues about connectivity, Wallick said. "The question is: Is the connectivity issue on our end or someone else's.
Wallick, a Canton, Ohio, native, started working for Frontier in 2010, based out of the company's Eastern Ohio office. He previously was an executive with a national jewelry store chain and a manager of Best Buy stores.
"It's managing a different kind of thing, but, in essence, you're managing people, Wallick said. "Frontier wanted to hire individuals who didn't necessarily work in the telecommunications industry. Frontier wanted some new ideas to take it where it was going, to more of a broadband company than a telephone company.
In addition to the class-action lawsuit, Frontier faces an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Commerce's Office of Inspector General, which is examining Frontier's role in a $126.3 million broadband expansion project in West Virginia. Frontier received about $40 million in federal stimulus funds to bring high-speed fiber Internet to schools, libraries and other government facilities. The company's critics have alleged that state officials allowed Frontier to use federal funds to build a "monopoly network that solely benefits Frontier.
"From Frontier's perspective, we managed that appropriately, Wallick said. "We haven't done anything incorrectly. There were a lot of guidelines on how the government wanted things done, and we followed those guidelines.
In recent months, Frontier also has landed in disputes with two competing Internet providers. Citynet alleges Frontier won't honor agreements to lease its unused fiber that Citynet says it needs to serve customers. Lumos Networks and Frontier are at odds over a fiber project in Nicholas County.
"Ironically, as communications companies, some of our biggest challenges are communicating with each other, Wallick said. "I will reach out to Citynet and Lumos. My door will always be open.
Over the next several years, Frontier plans to continue to improve its network's reliability and expand broadband service to more customers in West Virginia, Wallick said. The company expects to tap a federal broadband grant program - called the "Connect America Fund - and spend about $40 million a year over the next five years to bring Internet to homes in the state's most remote areas.
"I like it because it's a noble effort, Wallick said. "You're providing economic development and educational opportunities. I think it will be a great story, if we come back in two or three years and people say, Wow, they said the were going to do these things and they actually did them.'
In the coming days, Wallick plans to meet with Frontier's regional managers, engineers and technicians. He also figures he'll be answering more calls from customers.
"I don't always have the best answer, Wallick said. "Customers want to know someone is listening to their plight. They want to know you're aware of it, and you're going to do something about it.
F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette
New Frontier executive Kevin Wallick moves into his office on Monday morning, his first day on his new job.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com, 304-348-4869 or follow @ericeyre on Twitter.
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