Bell chief presided over many changes

March 31, 1995|By David Conn | David Conn,Sun Staff Writer

One thing Frederick D. D'Alessio always said he liked was explaining things, teaching people.

In 1992, when the president of Bell Atlantic-Maryland offered to build a fiber-optic network in some 200 Maryland schools, what sparked his interest most was the chance to rev up the state's classrooms a bit, with statewide networked lectures, and piped-in cultural lessons from the symphony or the Walters Art Gallery.

"We think this is pretty exciting," Mr. D'Alessio said at the time. "It will help bring equity to education."

Mr. D'Alessio, an engineer by training, may soon find himself educating several million consumers about a whole new world.

On Wednesday, Bell Atlantic announced that the 46-year-old Mr. D'Alessio would give up his job in Baltimore to become president of the parent company's newly formed Consumer Services division in Arlington, Va. His market: 12 million customers in six states and the District of Columbia.

With new products and services on the way that will blur the lines between traditional telephone, cable and broadcast companies, Mr. D'Alessio may play the role of teacher as much as that of engineer or executive. "I'm going to be very interested in totally being consumed by the consumer, and totally understanding what their needs are, and what products and services we can offer them," Mr. D'Alessio said.

The Newark, N.J., native has spent his entire career in the business, the first 17 years with the old New Jersey Bell. An electrical engineer by training, he has undergraduate and graduate degrees from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and a business degree from Rutgers.

At New Jersey Bell he headed various departments, including engineering, operations and marketing. It was under Mr. D'Alessio's watch in marketing and new products that the Bell system gave birth to some of the most popular -- and one of the most controversial -- telephone offerings: Answer Call, an advanced voice mail service; and Caller ID, which generated a national debate on privacy in the information age.

"That experience taught me how important it is to understand the requirements of customers," he once told The Sun. "And you don't do that by speculating, but by asking them directly."

When he came to Baltimore in 1991, replacing longtime Chairman Henry Butta, Mr. D'Alessio knew his business was on the verge of an overhaul.

"I think what I expected when I came here was the beginning of a major transformation in the telecommunications industry," he recalled, "in that the technology was just about going to make a major turn in terms of new features and functions, driven by fiber optics and sophisticated electronics and software that were going to begin to dramatically change the industry."

In the 3 1/2 years he's been here, "that's all happened, but even at a much greater pace than I had anticipated. . . . The traditional telephone company, it's hard to recognize it anymore."

That's because the industry is no longer content simply to provide telephone service. Bell Atlantic announced this week, for instance, that it plans to offer "wireless cable" service -- a hybrid form of broadcast and cable television -- which could bring several hundred channels to Baltimore subscribers within a year.

After that, the company wants to install a fiber optic "video dial tone" network that also would compete with broadcast and cable operators.

Mr. D'Alessio, like his predecessor, has made sure he won't be remembered solely for telephone service. He serves on the boards of the National Aquarium, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, Goucher College and the Baltimore Reads literacy organization, among others.

Even his professional foes admire his civic spirit. "Bell Atlantic is a good corporate citizen, and I think he's represented them very well," said Wayne O'Dell, president of the Cable Television Association of Maryland, Delaware and D.C.

As for Mr. D'Alessio, the shift to Virginia may not take him out of town completely. "We have really come to love Baltimore," he said. "It's a great place to live. That's why we haven't decided whether we want to move yet."

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