December 1, 1999
Wilkens Wins TRA-PHONE+ Telecommunications
Wholesale Pioneer Fitting Recipient of First Honor
By Ken Branson
Roy A. Wilkens, who turned a collection of gas pipeline rights of way into the fourth
largest fiber optic telecommunications network in the United States, has been named the
first recipient of the Telecommunications Competition Award, a designation created jointly
by the Telecommunications Resellers Association (TRA) and PHONE+ magazine. The award–a
crystal trophy and a $10,000 contribution to his charity of choice–was presented to
Wilkens Nov. 2 at TRA’s fall conference in Dallas.
Wilkens is currently the non-executive chairman of the board of Williams Communications
Group Inc., Tulsa, Okla. Wilkens’ career exemplifies the strange twists and turns the
telecommunications industry has taken in recent years. He came up through the ranks of the
oil and gas industry, working for Conoco Corp., and eventually for Williams, an energy
transport and exploration company based in Tulsa, Okla., where he rose to become president
of the Williams Pipeline Co. As such, it was he who took responsibility in 1985 for
turning the company’s rights of way into a telecommunications resource.
"He was given the responsibility of pulling fiber coast to coast through their
rights of way," recalls Ernie Kelly, president of the TRA. "Build a company out
of it; that was his assignment."
The company Wilkens built was WilTel Inc., which came to rank just below AT&T
Corp., the former MCI Communications Corp. and Sprint Corp. in the size of its fiber optic
network. WilTel was purchased in 1995 by LDDS Communications Inc., which is now MCI
"WilTel put a lot of competitive pressure on the big guys," Kelly says.
"Eventually, Roy built such a successful operation that Bernie (Ebbers, CEO of MCI
WorldCom) had to buy it."
Rich Nespola, president and CEO of The Management Network Group Inc., Kansas City, Mo.,
was one of those who nominated Wilkens for the award. He believes Wilkens enabled
competition by giving entrepreneurial companies access to good technology at competitive
prices. Those companies were the first real innovators the telecom industry had seen in
years, Nespola says. "They were the vanguard, and they couldn’t have been the
vanguard unless they had access to good technology at a competitive price," Nespola
Kelly credits Wilkens with two essential innovations in the world of competitive
telecommunications. First, he says, Wilkens developed the idea of using existing rights of
way for telecommunications purposes. Second, according to Kelly, Wilkens developed the
wholesale model for competitive telecommunications.
The first idea was a bit of stretch, even inside Williams.
Gordon Martin, now senior vice president-global network services at Williams
Communications Group, who worked for Wilkens at Williams Pipeline and later at WilTel,
remembers that the idea for WilTel was born at a Williams Pipeline meeting in 1985.
Martin, Wilkens and their colleagues were considering what they might do with a huge
network of pipe that no longer met government standards; the kind of weld in that pipe no
longer could be used to carry natural gas and petroleum products.
All sorts of ideas were batted around, Martin recalls, including the possibility of
using the T, which connected Kansas City, Mo., to Minneapolis, and Omaha, Neb., to
Chicago, to transport milk in bulk. When somebody suggested selling the rights of way to
telecommunications companies, Wilkens, who had worked in communications during his time
with Conoco, jumped on it. His superiors didn’t pounce quite so hard, however.
"He had to put his career at risk," Martin recalls. "He had to resign
from Williams Pipeline. He was told, ‘This idea is out there, but if you feel strongly
about it, you can work in the business unit and see what you can do.’ But if it didn’t
make it, there was no guarantee he could come back."
The second idea was less of a conceptual leap than it might have appeared to people
outside the energy industry, according to Martin. Martin worked for Wilkens, first at
Williams Pipeline, and then at WilTel. "You must remember, Williams–the energy
company–is a wholesale carrier," he says. "It carries natural gas and
refined products–like gasoline for Texaco or Sun."
WilTel closed a contract with Teleconnect and the National Telecommunications Network
for capacity. Originally, Martin remembers, WilTel intended to let Teleconnect sell
capacity, but there were so many takers that WilTel got into the game in earnest.
"Members of the TRA, in those days, were mostly aggregators of AT&T, and they
were being ignored," he says.
As the Midwest T started to fill up at the end of 1986, WilTel began to construct fresh
capacity from Kansas City, Mo., to Los Angeles, racing to finish before Sprint and MCI.
WilTel succeeded, and subsequently began to sell capacity to MCI. It was about that time,
Martin remembers, that he and Wilkens knew for sure that they had made the right move in
Martin says Wilkens brought more to the communications industry than his ideas. He
brought an openness and integrity that allowed him to go from "a cushy corner
office" as president of Williams Pipeline to a cardboard table in WilTel’s first
headquarters–a bare office on the 18th floor of the Williams Tower in Tulsa. "He is
someone that receptionists and CEOs love to work with," Martin recalls.
Ken Branson is business and finance editor for PHONE+ magazine.
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