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How will Mississippi build telecom industry?

JACKSON – Beyond committees, alliances, task forces and focus groups, what will it take to develop high-tech business in Mississippi?

“Just do it,” said Gerard Gibert, CEO of Venture Technologies in Ridgeland. “We don’t need any more task forces, committees or focus groups. We don’t have time to wait for high-paid consultants, from out-of-state, no doubt, to tell us what our constituents have already told us. We need to move fast.”

The Legislature can facilitate attracting high technology businesses by providing incentives for young technical talent to stay in Mississippi, Gibert said.

“Year after year, we experience ‘brain drain’ as many of our brightest technical minds seek employment outside the Magnolia State,” he said. “Perhaps some tax incentives or car tag credits would be in order. And what about the same for qualified out-of-state technical personnel that are considering employment in Mississippi? We are in the process of spinning off our network security practice into a separate pre-IPO entity. We found that we were unable to attract qualified talent to Mississippi, and decided to base the company in the Washington, D.C., area. And as a way to cure the acute shortage of technical talent, perhaps (provide) tuition credits for those pursuing technical degrees that maintain a certain G.P.A.”

Creating the right environment that fosters technological growth is as much a mentality as it is legislative policy, said Stephen D. Johnston, director of business development for SmartSynch in Jackson, who was lured from North Carolina, where he worked as an investment banker for eight years, before he moved to Mississippi in May.

“However, there are a few key issues that I hope the Legislature and the Mississippi economic development plan support,” he said. “Most importantly, we need to support start-up technology companies with incubator services – subsidized office space, a roadmap to accessing capital, how-to services, et cetera – because technology companies rarely move their headquarters. Once a company starts here it will stay here. We should make it easy and affordable for a start-up technology company to get off the ground.”

When Clinton-based WorldCom bought Jackson-based SkyTel, several SkyTel executives exited the company to start – or play a significant part in – the creation of several local high-tech companies, such as GulfSouth Capital, a venture capital company formed by SkyTel founder John Palmer and former Skytel CEO Jai Bhagat; Redundant.net, a backup Internet service provider where former SkyTel treasurer Tommy Ferguson lended a hand; Air2Lan, a wireless Internet company established by Bhagat; and LS Communications Inc., a startup telecommunications company in which former SkyTel employee Henry Barbour landed as vice president of investor relations.

“(WorldCom buying SkyTel) was a very vital component in getting things started,” Palmer told the The Clarion-Ledger. “But eventually I think a lot of these companies would have started anyway.”

The growth of technology-oriented curriculums should be supported by the Institutions of Higher Learning, which “represents a great opportunity for our junior colleges as well as our four year institutions,” Johnston said.

“Long-term, we should be focused on improving our airport with direct flights to major cities like New York, Boston, Charlotte and Chicago and demand jet service from American Airlines and U.S. Airways,” he said. “Currently, it takes all day to get to these cities. Improving transportation services will make it easier for business partners and capital providers to reach companies in our state. Adding airlines with jet service would also lower transportation costs.”

It wouldn’t hurt to leverage the success of WorldCom and other progressive telecommunications companies, such as Air2Lan, Loop Technologies and SmartSynch, with an aggressive public relations program that would also indicate how technology companies can succeed in Mississippi, said Johnston.

The Legislature could play a vital role in making Mississippi a better place through technology, Gibert said.

“For those of us in the technology business, we sure could use some help in the way of tax credits to defray the skyrocketing wages of technology professionals,” he said. “I like the payroll credit plan conceived by Gov. Musgrove as a starting point. We all know that technology is fast becoming central to every facet of our lives.”

“Understanding and using information technology is rapidly becoming a matter of survival,” said Gibert. “It’s drawing a line between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’”

It’s vitally important that our elected officials understand and use technology, he said. “It’s not acceptable for our leaders to simply surround themselves with technical personnel who deal with these issues. Those in government need not be programmers or engineers, but they must fully understand how technology can be used to solve human problems. It’s crucial they be able to converse intelligently with prospective technology companies.”

Gibert suggested that state officials “practice what they preach.”

“Buy Mississippi first,” he said. “Year after year, tens of millions of dollars are spent on technology with out-of-state companies when a Mississippi company can deliver the same solution for the same price or less – with the added value of having a vested in interest in a project’s success.”

Many people believe the telecommunications industry in Mississippi is somewhat fragmented, and increased collaboration is needed for a central Mississippi technology cluster to thrive like California’s Silicon Valley or North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

“At best, the state government’s use of technology is fragmented,” Gibert said. “There are several qualified Mississippi-based companies that can assist with developing a cohesive strategy and more importantly, can assist in implementing the strategy. (For instance,) adopt the Internet as a delivery vehicle for conducting business with citizens. The www.MS1Stop.com site is an example.”

Collaboration begins with building relationships, educating others on the clustering opportunities and the subsequent benefits and promoting working and productive partnerships, said Dr. Angeline “Angie” Dvorak, former president of Ashland Community College in Kentucky, who, on Nov. 13, will take the reins as president and CEO of Mississippi Technology Inc. (MTI), which promotes and coordinates science and technology-based economic development, and the Institute for Technology Development (ITD), which focuses on technology commercialization.

“I am committed to stimulating these collaborative efforts with a sincere sense of urgency,” said Dvorak, who will make one of her initial appearances as a panelist at the Governor’s Conference on High Technology on Nov. 2.

Dvorak was a member of a six-person commission that developed the state’s first “smart” park in eastern Kentucky, exposure that will give her a head start, said Don Meiners, interim CEO of MTI.

“Dr. Malcolm Portera (president of Mississippi State University) tells us that Kentucky is one of the most progressive states involving technology economic development,” he said. “Dr. Dvorak impressed our search committee during the interview process. She has a continuing history of leadership and accomplishments, with hands-on experience with technology, especially in the area of Telecommunications Information Technology, and her experience in workforce training will help significantly.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lynne@thewritingdesk.com or (601) 853-3967.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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