Taking a bet on telecom growth

Stephen Libonate’s small telecommunications business has had to be nimble to find work in an industry dominated by giants such as Verizon and AT&T.

True Communication, a 53-person company based in Dulles, Va. largely depends on federal and commercial subcontracts through Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T, with multi-year contracts for up to $14 million. TrueComm’s staff does whatever the prime requires — its most recent contract with AT&T involves installing Cisco’s voice-control technology in the Internal Revenue Service offices. Other times, TrueComm installs and un-installs cell service sites.

Like many firms depending on contract work, TrueComm has been creative when searching for new opportunities. Libonate, who has worked in communications technology for over a decade including stints at the White House and Verizon, is expansive in his definition of “telecommunication” — TrueComm recently piloted a telemedicine program in a veterans hospital, installing technology allowing doctors to communicate remotely with patients. TrueComm also sets up videoconferencing technology — called “tele-presence” in various offices.

Breaking into the telecommunications industry is particularly difficult for small players, according to industry analyst Scott Cleland, president of McLean-based investment research firm Precursor.

He said that telecommunications were mostly government regulated until almost two decades ago. “When they instituted competition, they didn’t remove a lot of the regulatory overhang. You have a competitive market living with some legacy regulation, so it’s like a weed that doesn’t die.”

But between TrueComm’s many projects, business has been going well — enough so that Libonate plans to expand his company by 50 percent. TrueComm is in the process of taking out a loan for just under $5 million through the Small Business Administration’s loan program to facilitate this expansion.

“If you think back to how the cable industry expanded and the initial cellphone business expanded, they’re both on the same kind of a track,” Libonate said. “There’s a big growth opportunity in this industry, but it’s constrained by the amount of infrastructure out there and the amount of people that can do the work.”

A Navy veteran, Libonate plans to draw the new hires from military-focused recruiting agencies such as Orion International’s military placement practice and a staffing company called Recruit Veterans. He hopes to hire about 25 full-time employees, and additional contract workers. These new employees will mainly climb cell towers, set up hardware, install 4G cell sites and take down 3G sites. Veterans currently comprise about 35 percent of employees.

To compete with larger companies hiring technical workers, TrueComm must “do some things that are a little different,” Libonate said — such as paying salaries instead of hourly wages, and providing benefits, which he said isn’t the industry’s norm. “Especially with former military people, everybody likes to make sure they get a paycheck.”

Libonate said he hopes the expansion will help TrueComm better balance commercial contracts with federal ones — about 70 percent of TrueComm’s contracts are commercial. He credited much of TrueComm’s success in winning contracts to its status as a service-disabled veteran-owned business.

TrueComm also plans to invest more time and money into its telemedicine program, expanding its reach beyond cell-service. The company had installed 10 interactive patient television systems — which provide patients with access to entertainment services, communication capabilities and medical records — in a veterans hospital in Loma Linda, Calif. TrueComm is bidding to install another 244 such devices in other hospitals around the country. The devices, which TrueComm purchases from Belgian technology company Barco, cost about $6,000 each to buy and install.

Small businesses in the telecommunications industry would likely need to be agile to be successful, Cleland said.

“It takes a long time for them to get on anybody’s radar screen. The key thing is finding a niche where there’s demand you can quickly supply.”

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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