SUPERNET - WorldCom's Sidgmore sees hope amid the gloom

John Sidgmore, vice chairman of WorldCom Inc. and chairman and chief executive of its E-Commerce Industries Inc. (ECI2) unit, tried to sound a note of optimism Tuesday at the start of the SuperNet telecommunications conference here.

Sidgmore, an Internet veteran who headed Internet service provider UUNet before it was acquired by WorldCom, said there are still big opportunities despite the post-boom gloom in the industry. Portable wireless data devices, wireless LANs and voice-activated Internet services, as well as e-commerce, all offer strong growth potential over the next few years, he said.

"There are opportunities in telecommunications, but they are not the same opportunities we had several years ago," Sidgmore told a lunch gathering of conference attendees, mostly from telecommunication equipment and services providers.

Demand for Internet services is still largely untapped, with just one-quarter of U.S. residents using the Internet on a regular basis, Sidgmore estimated. Service providers can tap into that demand by making the Internet easier to use, and without the need for widely-deployed high-speed broadband connections, he said.

Breakthroughs such as voice-controlled browsers can draw in additional residential users. Portable devices such as the Research in Motion Ltd. Blackberry personal digital assistant are gaining in popularity, and futuristic gadgets such as watches and glasses that can access the Internet are likely to follow, he said.

Meanwhile, wireless LANs using IEEE 802.11x will be nearly ubiquitous within a few years, making it easier for users to access the Internet in public places.

Sidgmore also expressed high hopes for e-commerce, especially in large companies where procurement costs are high.

"It is simply more efficient to do business over the Internet," Sidgmore said.

Two telecommunications equipment executives in the audience welcomed Sidgmore's message, though with reservations.

There is a big future in wireless devices like the Blackberry, agreed Venkat Vankayalapati, founder and chief technology officer (CTO) of Catamaran Communications, an optical network equipment vendor recently acquired by Infineon Technologies AG. However, with the current glut in the optical network infrastructure business, many competitors will be squeezed out, he said.

Subhash Roy, CTO of TranSwitch's Onex Communications unit, also agreed there is a strong future in new types of devices. However, the infrastructure industry is suffering from the rapid capital investments made by carriers in 1999 and 2000. They still have to amortize those investments over a long period and so won't be spending for a while, he said.

A comment at the beginning of Sidgmore's speech poked fun at the industry in which startups once were treated as if they could do no wrong.

"Two or three years ago we were all geniuses, and now we're all idiots," Sidgmore said.

He earned his biggest cheer with a comment about the economics of Internet-based customer service and marketing. Referring to a much-maligned advertising practice associated with long-distance carriers, Sidgmore said, "Calling people while they're eating dinner . . . actually costs more than it's worth."

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