By JACK WEATHERLY
Twenty years ago, Jackson was one of the world’s telecommunications centers.
WorldCom had spun its magic and bedazzled Wall Street.
How could a company in a Southern city not known for cutting-edge technology do that?
The eventual and ultimate answer was – it cheated.
Mississippi folk hero Bernie Ebbers wound up in prison, perhaps for the rest of his life.
Then the Magic City disappeared just as Emerald City did when the Great Oz was exposed.
About that time, a young man whose beginnings were as humble as Ebbers’ was getting started.
Gary Watts started with Dairy Queen, as far-removed from telecommunications as Ebbers and his motels.
Begun as Broadband Voice in 2006, Watts’ firm has grown and diversified.
A new name was needed to reflect those changes.
Last year the company became Fuse.Cloud.
Located in first-floor offices the Dickies Building at 736 S. President St. in Jackson, its employment has grown to 17 and will revenue hit $5 million this year, Watts said in an interview.
Fuse.Cloud’s growth caught the eye of Fortune magazine as one of the fastest-growing firms located in an “inner city.”
Those on the Inner City 100 were chosen on revenue growth, which for Fuse.Cloud totaled 78 percent over a five-year period.
That placed the firm at No. 85.
Inner City companies exemplify economic opportunity, optimism and transformation in their communities.
Watts and company believe in giving back, he said.
To do so, he reaches back to his earlier life when he became a promoter for Christian music concerts, an experience that gave him a good view of the rest of the country.
Expansion is on the horizon for the company, he said. Next year will be one of acquisitions, which will lead to a national expansion, Watts said.
Fuse.Cloud has about 1,500 customers in a number of states already.
WorldCom, by far-fetched contrast, grew to become the No. 2 long-distance phone provider in the nation through acquisitions, including the $42 billion merger with MCI in 1997.
And it essentially died by failure to acquire. When regulators in the United States and Europe turned down the Jackson company’s bid to buy Sprint, WorldCom ran out of cash cows to milk.
It covered its losses through phony entries amounting to $11 billion, and its ultimate demise, leading to a trial in which Ebbers was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison, and retirement plans for shareholders and employees were in shambles.
Fuse.Cloud is looking for new quarters. It is eyeing industrial property near downtown.
That plan is based on loyalty to the “inner city” as well as the bottom line.
Commercial property there is a third of what it costs in Ridgeland and Madison, Watts said.
Watts bought a Dairy Queen franchise in Raymond when he was 23 and it provided him an experience that a Harvard MBA couldn’t match, he said.
And it taught him a valuable business lesson: how to survive failure. He sold it after 10 years. Some years, the store showed no profit, he said.
To make his personal ends meet, he started a side career as a promoter of Christian music concerts.
With the birth of his daughter in 1993, he knew it was time to get off the road.
So he got a job selling for Unity Communications. “I got the idea that technology and communications were probably going to be the future.”
Unity wanted to go public but fell victim to the bursting of the dot-com bubble and, like so many other new tech firms, went bankrupt.
Yet in making his sales calls, he saw a picture of frustration on the part of the companies using large telecoms.
“I realized that if you could give them the service, with a relationship, then you might have an opportunity to grow a business,” he said.
He looked at the quantity/quality equation.
He decided his niche was quality.
“Everybody is born with this sense of wanting community in their life, wanting relationship. I think that for too long these large companies have just walked away from that.”
Key to what was initially Broadband Voice is what is known as Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP.
It is “cloud,” or Internet, based, and provides communications security such as during major weather disruptions such as hurricanes and tornadoes, Watts said.
VoIP’s quality had improved by the time Watts was ready to launch his company. Its largest proponent was Vonage, which was primarily for residential users.
There was no commercial use of it in Mississippi, thus a leaving a door of opportunity open.
That opportunity was in no small part a result of the work by a Mississippian, Chip Pickering, who was on Sen. Trent Lott’s staff and had a hands-on role in shaping the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which turned the government and university sector research system called the Internet into a commercial tool.
He was elected to the first of what would be six terms as U.S. representative for the Third Congressional District.
“It really has been the foundation of the electronic marketplace that has developed over the last 20 years,” Pickering said.
“The good news for individuals like Gary is that you can start a business in Mississippi and . . . do very well. The businesses that he serves are not captives to just one choice or two.”
Yet big providers are pressuring the FCC and threatening equal access, “the First Amendment of the Internet,” Pickering said.
Before the commercialization of the Internet, the big providers such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon did not see it as a threat, Pickering says.
The FCC removed the net neutrality provision in its rules on Thursday, leaving Internet service providers to promise to not take advantage of the change.
The FCC, in conjunction with the Federal Trade Commission, will have the authority to punish any abuse of freedom, but only after the fact.
Pickering is chief executive of Incompas, a trade group for those who seek to protect net neutrality, or unrestricted access to the Internet.
The major Internet service providers, AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have succeeded in pressuring the regulatory agency to make the change, according to Pickering.
The majority Republican FCC voted 3-2 along party lines to repeal the rules.
Internet pioneers and key figures in that world, such as Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak, sent a letter to the FCC seeking to persuade it to drop its evident intentions.
Not everyone wanted to keep the net neutrality rules. Investor’s Business Daily argued in a recent editorial that in the decade before the Obama administration imposed the rules in 2015, Internet use and innovation flourished.
Yet, Pickering and many others argue that with the repeal of open-use protections, big providers could gain dominance over the Internet and, ultimately, cost the consumer more for the service.
Pickering expects litigation to sidetrack the change for several years.
Meantime, Watts, joined Incompas and provides telecom services to Pickering’s Jackson office.
“I’ve watched as he has grown his business and done a lot of innovative things in order to compete and do well,” Pickering said.
“He is, I guess you could say, an offspring of the Act that allowed and promoted competitors to do what Gary is doing.”
“He provides a service to a lot of small, large and mid-sized businesses at a better price and usually with very tailored service.”
Ironically, Comcast, which is now the nation’s largest Internet service provider and cable provider, got its start in Tupelo.
Its first three franchises are in Tupelo, Laurel and Meridian, Pickering noted.
A humble beginning, like most businesses.
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