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Weather Junkies Keep This Bug In Business

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_____Correction_____
The Digital Capital column in the July 22 Business section incorrectly characterized the financial performance of AWS Convergence Technologies Inc. The privately held company lost money in its most recent quarter but recorded a profit in 2003, according to AWS executives.


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By Ellen McCarthy
Thursday, July 22, 2004; Page E01

Just past the Motor Vehicle Administration office in Gaithersburg, deep in commercialized suburbia, a faceless warehouse contains the nerve center for the largest network of weather stations in the world.

It's also home to one of the Washington area's fastest-growing Internet content companies.

AWS Convergence Technologies Inc. is hardly a household name, but its online weather application, WeatherBug, had more unique visitors in June than Orbitz.com, CNET.com and Priceline.com, according to ComScore Media Metrix. And while the company started out selling meteorology lessons for classrooms, Internet advertising brought in 75 percent of AWS's nearly $30 million in revenue last year.

The company's executives give one reason for the company's survival: weather junkies.

"Weather is the number one reason people watch TV news -- period," said Robert S. Marshall, chief executive. "They say all politics is local. Well, all weather is local, I guarantee you."

Local is a word Marshall uses often. Most weather reports draw information from National Weather Service stations at major airports and other official sites. WeatherBug's information is "more local," Marshall explains, because it has five times as many sensors throughout the country. Users who have downloaded its Internet application can get vital stats on the rainfall, humidity and wind speeds in their own neighborhoods at any given moment.

AWS was founded in 1992 by a group of entrepreneurs including Channel 9 meteorologist Topper Shutt. The company's initial goal was to make money selling weather stations and an educational curriculum to schools. AWS solicited corporate sponsors to help schools pay $6,000 to $15,000 for sophisticated weather sensors. Marshall's wife, a middle school math teacher, wrote early versions of the science and algebra lessons the company offered with the sensors.

By 1998, AWS had weather stations at more than 3,500 schools around the country. Information gathered from those schools is sent via broadband networks to a data center in Reston, then filtered out to local television stations that have licensing deals with the company.

After Shutt left AWS in late 1993, Channel 4 meteorologist Bob Ryan signed on as AWS's biggest cheerleader in the weather industry. "Years ago we would report the weather at Dulles Airport and Reagan Airport and BWI airport and not a lot of people live there," recalled Ryan.

By 1999 TV meteorologists in more than 100 cities were reporting conditions at local schools gathered from AWS sensors.

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