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Telecommunications biz offers opportunities

Fast-pace changes force companies to think fast, act prudently

If consumers think they have it tough wading through all the marketing and advertising information from telecommunications companies and attempting to decipher what’s what, try being at the front of this log jam: the companies themselves.

While the voluminous opportunities in the telecommunications industry may be exciting for some companies, for others trying to rein in their opportunities is almost nightmarish, said Paul Polishuk, president of the Information Gatekeepers Group, a Boston-based telecommunications consulting and publishing concern.

Polishuk said while it’s difficult enough for the large granddaddy companies like AT&T or BellSouth, who have to assign people just to track new technology opportunities, the situation is extremely serious for beginning entrepreneurs and early-stage telecommunications companies.

“It’s like you’re a kid in a candy store,” he said. “They want to grab it all. And the problem is that it gets to be too much and you get a stomach ache and you go under.”

Avoiding the stomach ache takes patience, a well thought out strategy and flexible leaders, Polishuk said.

True, leading this log jam are new developments in technology, but backing them up are new agreements between telecommunications companies facilitated by theTelecommunications Act of 1996, which seemingly pried open a door that had been well blocked by reams of regulations.

“I think there’s going to be more new stuff offered this year” than any year in recent memory, said Ray O’Neal, a Fulton attorney who specializes in telecommunications law and represents the Mississippi Cable Telecommunications Association. “It’s growing exponentially.”

In almost every area of telecommunications — from delivery systems to access points — new products and services are hitting the market place, as well as new needs that those products and services create, Polishuk said.

Walt Eilers, vice president of public relations at Jackson-based Wireless One, said in just the last nine months his company has gone from being a one-product company that basically provided cable programming via satellite and wireless to single-family rural homeowners to now offering three new services, including DIRECT TV to single-family homes as well as multi-unit users like hotels, motels and apartments. That one product alone has grown at a rate of 270% in just the last quarter Eilers said, from 3,500 units to 15,000.

The result of the fast-paced growth forced a restructuring of the four-year-old company at the start of this year and put people like company president Henry Burkhalter into serious employee-communication mode in April when he visited 18 cities in three weeks talking to employees about the change, Eilers said.

“We have basically changed the way our company looks in terms of its structure,” Eilers said, noting that between the company president and the front-line employee there are only three levels, thus making communication much more efficient. “We’ve restructured the flow and become a more horizontal company.”

When information has to get out quickly — and it usually does in this industry — Eilers said they rely on a torrent of e-mail messages to employees.

“We’re using our technology,” he said, adding that the telecommunications industry is being pushed along by the public’s insatiable appetite for knowledge.

“People are looking for faster and better ways to access information quicker,” he said, signing off with a plug for his industry: “And that’s wireless.”

But with all of that said, at least one voice is less optimistic about the true opportunities Mississippi companies really have. The state, although serving as home base for some of the industry’s leading telecommunications companies and visionaries, isn’t actually a national leader in providing those services to Mississippi consumers first, said John Daigle, director of the Center for Wireless Communications at the University of Mississippi.

“Our smart people like John Palmer at Mtel are going where the people spend money,” Daigle said. “WorldCom would rather sell long distance to people in New York City than Mississippi because they have more money.”

Daigle said it isn’t just the economies of scale that keeps some telecommunications companies from investing in the infrastructure that would bring the cutting edge technologies here, but a systemic problem that runs across educational, political and socio-economic lines.

“It’s not that it’s about economics, it’s just that people aren’t employing economic sense,” he said. “We’re moving, it’s not that we’re stationary, we’re just not deploying technology as fast as we can.”

Eilers at Wireless One said true, southeastern states like Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana are far behind states like New York and New Jersey but that is changing.

“What we do have is a whole lot better than three years ago,” he said.

As a true player in the telecommunications revolution, Polishuk said the cable industry is one that won’t be up to its potential until there is more investment in the infrastructure. For today’s communication needs, cable — a one-way medium — is severely handicapped, Polishuk said, and the industry is going to have to “put a lot of investment to get it to go two-way.”

“Basically, that industry’s been running on World War II technology,” Polishuk said, noting that the traditional phone companies right now stand to be the biggest winners and have the most opportunities in the telecommunications industry.

While the traditional phone companies are already branching into areas like the Internet, movies on demand and some video products thanks to its fiber optic infrastructure, and wireless communications are becoming increasingly diverse, cable operators, for the most part, are really taking a wait and see approach. O’Neal said the changes in the cable industry may be slow in coming but they are indeed coming.

“I see as things are changing people are making huge capital investments on equipment, but I think they need to slow down because we don’t know how things are going to be,” O’Neal said. “I don’t know who all the winners and losers are going to be.”


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