Timing is everything when it comes to cracking a multibillion-dollar international telecommunications market. Just ask Dave Schmieg, president and chief executive officer of Diginet Americas Inc. in Northwest Washington.
Timing is exactly what persuaded Schmieg to leave his post as president and chief operating officer of New York-based WinStar International Inc. in February to take the helm at the young telecommunications start-up.
"I really wanted to CEO my own company," said Schmieg, a 28-year veteran of the telecommunications industry. "And I had concluded that Latin America was the right place at the right time for explosive broadband growth. I saw a crying need for these capabilities."
His hunch -- and the company's focus -- has so far been right on target, analysts say. Diginet Americas boasts an early lead in the race to offer high-speed data, voice and Internet access services in Latin America. The company has licenses and permits to build and operate communications services in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Panama and Peru. Branded under the name "Diveo," its networks in Buenos Aires, Bogota and Sao Paulo are up and running, serving companies such as Citibank, EDS, Embratel, IBM and StarMedia. The company's largest market to date is Buenos Aires, where it has signed up more than 100 customers since May.
The company provides its wireless communications service to businesses through rooftop microwave transmissions, which allow signals to be beamed from building to building. Its strategy is to go after buildings in metropolitan areas that house the best prospects for using such technology: those with large concentrations of corporate tenants.
"We spend considerable time upfront analyzing where the largest businesses are and then get roof rights on the buildings," Schmieg said. "It's a very building-centric approach."
Tracking down that information and marketing its service to the right buildings is a tough prospect in regions with less available demographic data, analysts say. Schmieg said the company sends "small armies of people out to canvass each building to see who's really in them." That, he believes, makes Diginet's database of real estate information all the more important and valuable. Being first to market has been the key to the company's fast rise.
On tap for next year are service launches in five major urban markets in Brazil, including Rio de Janeiro shortly after January. Panama and Peru will follow. And Schmieg says the firm has requests for licenses and service applications pending in Venezuela, Chile and Uruguay.
"The phenomena of competition there is fairly new," said Michael Krier, director, Latin America, for the Strategis Group, a District-based company that tracks worldwide telecom markets. "Diginet has come in early and really is the first company to go in and build out."
Diginet Americas spent much of the first two years after its founding in 1996 quietly gobbling up spectrum licenses, or rights, in major Latin American markets -- just as deregulation of state-owned monopolies and privatization was beginning to open Latin America to new competition. That two-year head start "really made a difference," Schmieg said, particularly given the political and bureaucratic roadblocks to entering these markets. So has investor interest in the three-year-old firm, which has been brisk.
Last week, Ericsson Communications Inc. agreed to provide Diginet Americas with an additional $200 million in vendor financing -- on top of a $100 million pact signed in June. On Dec. 9, Diginet Americas signed a similar $100 million agreement with Lucent Technologies Inc. for Internet and data products.
The latest deal with Ericsson brings the District company's total vendor financing to $400 million in addition to more than $145 million in private equity financing it has secured from GS Capital Partners III L.P. (an affiliate of Goldman, Sachs & Co.), Alta Communications and others.
The company chalked up the largest venture capital transaction in the Washington area -- $90 million -- in the third quarter of this year, after grabbing the third-largest chunk of venture capital investment in the country -- $70 million -- during the second quarter, according to VentureOne Corp., a San Francisco-based venture capital research firm.
With its most recent financing in hand, Schmieg says, Diginet Americas will be able to fund its current plans through at least the next 30 months. As for future expansion, Schmieg said he expects the company to sell stock in an initial public offering within 12 to 18 months. Future vendor financing depends on the firm's rate of growth in its existing and new markets.
There's no shortage of demand for wireless broadband in the Latin American market, says the Strategis Group's Krier. Latin American wireless broadband revenue could hit $2.5 billion annually by 2003, according to his firm's projections. Telecom equipment sales to Latin American businesses likely will reach $221 million annually between 1999 and 2008.
A key driver for wireless broadband: Businesses' growing appetite for high-speed data and Internet services. Internet usage alone is expected to jump 172 percent in the region by 2003, according to San Francisco-based International Data Corp. PC shipments to Latin America reached $1.8 billion in value during the third quarter, up more than 12 percent from the second quarter, IDC reports.
Facts like those are drawing other large high-tech firms that share the same view of the region's potential. America Online launched its first Latin American portal in Brazil last month in a $200 million joint venture with Venezuela's Cisneros Group. And Microsoft Corp. has announced plans to invest $126 million in Brazil's largest cable operator, Globo Cabo, to expand high-speed cable access.
All this is proof, analysts say, that activity in the Latin American telecom market is heating up. And other competitors are dialing into the opportunities, too.
Denver-based VeloCom Inc. -- in partnership with Bell Canada and Qualcomm Inc. -- has boosted its market presence in the past few months beyond Brazil to Argentina, Colombia and Peru through the acquisition of the Latin American assets of broadband wireless access providers Formus Communications International, Argentina-based SLI Wireless SA and Brazil-based Taquari Participacoes SA. VeloCom holds "mirror" licenses in Brazil to provide a competitive alternative to the incumbent operators in their respective regions. Part of its strategy is to offer services using technology similar to that of Diginet Americas.
"While this consortium poses a threat, Diginet has the first-to-market advantage," Krier said. "In addition, Diginet is not a consortium and, consequently, may have greater flexibility." Other competitors, such as WinStar, may have licenses to do business in these countries, but haven't yet built out live services, Krier said. WinStar acquired spectrum rights in Argentina in February. Diginet Americas received spectrum rights in March 1997.
There's no shortage of challenges in the region. Foreign ownership regulations in Mexico -- Mexican law requires companies to be 51 percent domestically owned -- has soured some new entrants. And South American telecom giants such as Telefonica Internacional control as much as 99 percent of the market, functioning much like U.S. regional Bell operating companies. But even that competitor has become a customer. Telefonica buys high-speed access from Diginet Americas, Schmieg said.
For Diginet Americas, the greatest challenges continue to be maintaining its tight focus on Latin America and finding enough qualified employees "at the speed we need" to keep growing, Schmieg said. With that in mind, he says the company has identified acquisition targets that could provide it with new employees -- and new customers. Schmieg predicts Diginet Americas will more than double its size by the end of next year -- from 330 employees to between 600 and 700.
And he says the company sees opportunities for geographic expansion as well. But sticking to its bread-and-butter market -- by adding to the depth of licenses it holds and the business customers it attracts -- is Schmieg's immediate focus.
"There's always a danger if your appetite gets too big too fast," he said. "So we're going to be trying to stay very focused on Latin America."