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September 2008
Streaming Solutions
By Thom Callahan

     Wind streaming is swift, powerful. And the eponymous Windstream Communications provides no less in the way of telecommunications services, using energy harnessed through fiber optics to carry a multitude of sounds and images to thousands of destinations in a matter of seconds. Via their services you can do everything from communicating on a secure landline, to navigating the World Wide Web with broadband, to watching high definition digital television.

     Windstream Communications makes communications service and equipment available to those outside of the big-city borders as the nation’s largest domestic, rural landline telecommunications company. Windstream now supplies about 3.2 million access lines in 16 states.

     Although its name may seem relatively new, Windstream has a long lineage in the telephone industry. The company was formed in mid-2006 through the spin-off of Alltel’s landline business and merger with VALOR Telecom. Alltel dates back to 1943, when it was founded in Little Rock, Ark., as the Allied Telephone Company before merging with an Ohio telephone company to become Alltel in 1983.

     In 2007, Windstream acquired century-old CT Communications of Concord, nearly doubling the company’s presence in North Carolina. The company also completed a split-off its directory publishing business.

     Windstream’s strength is in streamlining offerings and bundling services, offering customers local and long distance landline communications along with broadband and resale satellite-TV services (Echo Star). The company is customizing broadband packages to specific customer categories while promoting faster high-capacity service. New products are being added, like video on demand and home networking. For business accounts, the company is strengthening its ties by offering data-heavy bundles.

     Despite this dizzying array of corporate combinations and substantial growth, Greg Baucom, Windstream’s area vice president of business solutions, wants folks to know the carrier didn’t forget its roots. He stands beside one of Windstream’s vintage 1953 Chevy pickup trucks painted in a vibrant lime green with orange flames and Windstream logo, and powered up on the inside with a new engine and all of the latest gadgets including a GPS satellite system and DVD player.

     “The truck is our icon, it’s about our heritage,” explains Baucom. “We’ve taken this truck, its strong foundation, and added innovation. A strong foundation and innovation is what we can provide by building on our long history of being a telecom company.”

     The truck’s small town feel can be seen as a nod toward Windstream’s presence in predominantly rural communities. But it’s more than just a quaint notion. Like the truck, which travels on promotional tours, Windstream’s on the move and broadening its coverage.

     “I think our CEO [Jeff Gardner] has not made any secret about the fact that he’s looking to grow our company and plans to double the size within the next five years,” says Alice Hartnett, Windstream’s marketing communications manager.

 

Total Package

     While Windstream has a presence in some larger areas such as greater Charlotte, Lincoln, Nebraska, and Lexington, Kentucky, Hartnett points out, “Our history, where we’ve grown up, and where we’re licensed to provide service is mostly in rural markets.”

“Our truck certainly does tie in and focus on our grassroots connections, illustrating that we’re classic yet contemporary—your hometown service provider,” she adds.

     The telecom network of Windstream extends west to New Mexico, north to New York, and south to Florida. Closer to home, its access lines total around 300,000 in North Carolina and 49,000 in South Carolina. But, however large or small the size of Windstream’s market, their business model remains focused on being a full-service provider.

     “We truly are a one-stop shop,” Baucom says. “We offer a product suite that gives customers one point of contact so they do not have to go to multiple vendors or deal with multiple companies.”

     Whether seeking voice, broadband, digital TV, phones (systems and equipment) or data services, subscribers can obtain them through Windstream.

     “That’s what makes us different—being able to bring a total business solution together for our customers. Our products are not one set of vanilla-flavored options, but are customized solutions.” Baucom affirms.

     Leading their local presence along with Baucom and Hartnett are Bill Powell and Edwin Jackson, directors of business solutions. The three men have 41 years of telecommunications service among them.

     “We’re one of the few carriers that can provide anything and everything,” asserts Powell. “If a customer needs a solution or has an issue, our technicians and sales reps can go out and essentially diagnose or respond to whatever the need may be.”

     Powell adds that other carriers may not have the in-house capabilities to do the same, instead employing subcontractors for cable installation, using independent call centers to route inquiries, and contracting with vendors for phone equipment.

     Maintaining and improving infrastructure is crucial for any company, and Windstream is currently undergoing a network consolidation project to be able to offer new data services, Baucom confirms.

     “One thing is for certain—even with the ever-evolving technology in telecommunication, there will always be a greater ‘need for speed,’” acknowledges Jackson.

     “We’ll have greater data and Internet solutions for customers who may have multiple business footprints in different markets, and we can get those markets and businesses connected,” Baucom explains. “We’ve been working hard to get that network in place and have had great success in doing so. In fact, we’ve already tuned up that network in Charlotte and in the surrounding cities of the Carolinas.”

     Baucom gives an example of what he calls a “needs analysis” and eventual solution that Windstream provided for an actual business customer that uses an extensive data network. The customer needed to have the capability of routing data (disaster recovery plan) from one of its distribution centers to another in the event there was a disaster at the first center.

     “We have the capabilities to put emergency scripts in place, and for this customer we developed a plan with our network operation team,” Baucom recalls. “So if an emergency happens, they make a phone call, give a password and the script then will be invoked for Windstream to reroute the traffic to the other center.”

     When it came to the hardware to implement the project, Windstream kept things in-house as well. In Alpharetta, Georgia, the carrier has its own sourcing company, Windstream Supply. “We also source and supply many other companies in this space,” Baucom says. “So we have a large catalog of equipment options we can tap into.”

     One construction contractor needed video surveillance for a project, Baucom remembers. “You may not think a telecom company can come up with a solution for that customer, but we were able to go to Windstream Supply and put a solution in place.”

 

Broad Band of Products

     As with other carriers, Windstream’s products and services are numerous and offer basic to custom packages. “We offer residential and business voice services, local and long distance and data services with a variety of flavors,” Baucom says.

     There’s broadband, its current network access lines number 934,000, and Web hosting, to start with, right on down to the equipment. Windstream’s inventory boasts cordless phones with Bluetooth technology as well as the traditional corded phones for residential customers. There’s even a red Hot Lips telephone (with hearing aid compatibility) and Spiderman and Homer Simpson models.

     Whimsy aside, the carrier also assists businesses whose communication resources are vast but yearn to address them with one medium.

     “A business may have a need to make their communications as efficient and simple as possible,” Baucom describes. “Instead of having to check an e-mail, voicemail or fax, they can go to one place and have access to all of these mediums with unified messaging. So when an e-mail is checked, they can also listen to a voicemail and so on.”

     The unified messaging is part of Windstream’s premise equipment, which includes key line and PBX systems, and allows users to archive conversations and messages.

     “And that’s a pretty nifty option for customers to simplify their communications to one location instead of being tattered among three different mediums,” Baucom points out.

     Windstream’s residential subscribers can even watch digital TV through its partnership with the DISH Network.

     There are lots of choices for Windstream customers to be sure. But not everyone wants everything. So bundling solves that.

     “What we try to do is take all of our products, from features and equipment to data and voice services, and combine them in different ways,” Baucom offers. “Yes, we have standard bundles, but they are just the starting point of what we can put together. We want to provide customized solutions for business customers.”

     “Our account executives are absolutely empowered to work through pricing scenarios to fit a particular company’s business model,” affirms Baucom. “We have a plan, for example, that does not require an outlay of capital to purchase phone system equipment.” Instead, a business customer may pay a monthly rate for a phone system, which Windstream will guarantee, so they don’t have to worry about it becoming obsolete, Baucom says. And at any time during the term, if that customer wants to break the agreement and upgrade to a newer technology, there’s no termination penalty, he adds.

     “It’s evergreen, so instead of outlaying precious capital dollars, we’d rather you use that money to grow your business and make it profitable. Looking forward,” Baucom adds, “we try to be a telecommunications partner, not a provider that’s here today with a solution and five years down the road you’re looking for a new solution.”

 

Local Economic Impact

     The success of Windstream has made a substantial footprint here at home, where employees in greater Charlotte account for 1,300 of its 7,500 work force. The company’s revenue as of December 31, 2007, was $3.3 billion, contributing $26.6 million to North Carolina in state and local taxes.

     Windstream’s business customer service call center for its 16-state network in Matthews is headed by Les Harrell, director of business customer service. Baucom credits Harrell and the employees for the center’s success.

     “Our business service center reps live and work here, using our products and services, and I think that’s a great resource for this market, really knowing our products inside and out,” Baucom comments with pride.

     A residential call center is also located in the Matthews center and another is located in Cornelia, Georgia. For local and long distance repairs and broadband support, assistance is available 24/7.

     Every year Windstream promotes its Green Truck Tour to spread community donations and safety messages throughout its 16-state service area. The Green Truck is a refurbished 1953 vintage pickup truck that depicts Windstream’s rural and suburban heritage on the outside and its commitment to future innovation on the inside, as illustrated by the revved up interior.

     Two new 1953 refurbished vintage trucks have been added to the tour fleet (for a total of four) and will be traveling more than 50,000 miles from New Mexico to New York with more than 90 stops in 14 states. Windstream uses the Green Truck Tour as an opportunity to educate the public about how traditional landline phone service offers additional safety, security and reliability since it continues to work during power outages and failures, and allows emergency responders to pinpoint the exact location from which an emergency phone call was made.

     The iconic Windstream pickup will continue to roll with its small-town feel hauling a big-city vibe. And along the way, Baucom hopes new onlookers will remember: “We strive to take our products and services and tailor them for our business customers. Our dedicated account representatives really dive in and understand where we have opportunities to help that business be more efficient, profitable, and thus be more successful.”

Thom Callahan is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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