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Telecommunications companies in the metro Jackson area have made giant strides

Metro’s telecom leaders eye growth, new products, services

While most of the telecommunications news is dominated by the latest at MCI WorldCom in Clinton, other telecommunications companies in metro Jackson have made giant strides.

Recently, Tritel Communications went public, Unity made purchases and SkyTel continued to build its wireless network.

Tritel’s SunCom

Talking on his wireless phone with an uncanny clarity, William M. Mounger II, chairman and CEO of Tritel Communications Inc., said “the decision to go public was very, very fast.”

“When we talked in October, we planned an IPO sometime in 2000,” he said. “The stock market was going very well, and wireless stocks like ours were going very well. Our bankers told us it was a good time, so around mid-December, we started selling stocks at $18 a share. It traded well, as high as the low $30s and has recently settled around the high $20s.”

The company market capitalization is around $3.5 billion, Mounger said.

“It raised about $244 million for Tritel,” he said. “That was on top of the capital structure of over $1 billion. What we’re using the capital for, of course, is to continue and accelerate our build-out, and to have the best visual footprint we can in our cities.”

Since the Jackson rollout, SunCom digital cellular service was launched in Knoxville, Chattanooga and Nashville, Tenn., Huntsville and Montgomery, Ala., and Louisville and Lexington, Ky. — all before Christmas, he said.

“That was quite a bit more than what we thought we would launch by then, and the rollouts went very well,” he said. “We’re in the process of building out some other Alabama markets, including Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Mobile with a target launch date of the second quarter this year. Beyond that, we’ll be building in a number of smaller markets, like the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Tupelo.”

Tritel Communications, established in 1998 and with only 50 employees this time last year, currently has about 650 employees, with another 500 scheduled for hire in Jackson and other markets, Mounger said.

“We’ll continue to expand our call center on Lakeland Drive (in Jackson) as our subscriber base grows,” he said. “We’ll expand our billing department, which is also located there. We may move some folks downtown. I’m sure we’ll continue to grow our technical center on Highland Colony Parkway (in Ridgeland). We’re continuing to add jobs in all areas downtown — marketing, engineering, technical operations, accounting, human resources.”

Unity Communications

When local phone service is offered by the end of the year, Jackson-based Unity Communications will be the only company in the state to offer local, long distance, paging, cellular and Internet access — all on one bill with one call for customer service…one call, that’s all.

“Unlike most other telecommunications companies, Unity Communications is not a technical company but a national provider of telecommunications services,” said Johnny Hales, manager of corporate communications.

“For three years, the company researched the needs and desires of the primary target market, which is small businesses, and developed the billing systems and a customer support organization that enables the company to quickly add new products and provision them how and as the customer needs them.”

Unity Communications picked up approximately 7,500 new customers when it recently acquired Pacific Cellular and its offices in San Diego and Las Vegas.

“With offices in 10 states, Unity provides paging, cellular, long distance and Internet service,” Hales said. “With this product set and with the knowledge of how to best meet the customer’s needs, Unity plans to become a preeminent player in the telecommunications industry in the near future.”

SkyTel

SkyTel, an MCI WorldCom company, grew up as a paging company, but in the last couple of years has been quietly transitioning itself as a company that’s in the business of wireless data, said Wynn Saggus, marketing communications director.

“That’s really going to become apparent outside the company this year,” she said. “One reason is that two-way paging is really poised to break out. When you get two-way paging in the hands of people that have not been paging customers, they don’t think of it as a pager. And it’s really not. A pager is something that goes off and you call back. This is more like remote e-mail.”

Remote e-mail products are gaining broad retail interest and distribution, she said.

“Office Depot now has the product in all stores,” Saggus said. “Another thing that will happen this year to make the change in the company apparent is that products are coming out that are wireless, but not necessarily about any particular device.”

Wireless e-mail will increase efficiency of professionals who travel often, she said.

“For example, if I have a laptop and am traveling out of town or have a job that takes me all over town, I can’t always find a place to plug in for Internet access and pull up information I need,” she said. “If I can have a card to plug into my laptop that gives me wireless Internet access at a very fast speed, that’s fabulous. Wireless e-mail is a product that we will be test marketing this year.”

Wireless is not only about mobility, but also about cost savings and labor savings, she said.

“For example, if I own an office building that was built in the 1950s and my tenants need high-speed data access, my choices are to tear up the sidewalk, tear up the walls and put in these high-speed data lines — or I can work with a wireless company like SkyTel, put a receiver on the roof, put a couple of antennas maybe on floors No. four, eight and 12. Then all my tenants need is a wireless modem and they can get Internet access at high speeds without having to invest all that capital and rewire the place. It’s not just about mobility anymore, it’s about all of the advantages wireless gives you, even when you’re just working in an office.”

SkyTel is revving up to launch a wireless device later this year that will benefit utility companies — and its customers, she said.

“If I run a utility company, a lot of my manpower costs are putting people in the field to go out once a month and read meters,” she said. “That gets expensive. Alternatively, I could install a wireless device on all of my meters and once a month send out a signal to request a reading. It’s really the whole transition from thinking of SkyTel, in the public mind, as a paging company to understanding that we are really a wireless data company.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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