What the heck is PSINet?

That's a familiar refrain, heard especially around Baltimore as people wonder what kind of organization put its name on the Ravens' football stadium.

And while Internet aficionados have been following Herndon-based PSINet Inc. since its 1989 inception, others may not know that the company that paid $100 million for the naming rights to the stadium also has built one of the largest voice and data networks in the world.

PSINet sells Internet service to all kinds of businesses, but it also wholesales access to its network to other Internet providers, such as MindSpring, that sell directly to consumers.

In October the company said it would spend $1.4 billion to expand its fiber-optic network in its goal to be an "Internet super-carrier." It already owns 1 million miles of fiber-optic cable.

PSINet's stock shot up 213 percent in 1999. Last week it bumped around with the rest of the tech sector, ending the week down $5 at $61.

Still run by founder and chairman William L. Schrader, PSINet remains a giant independent Internet access provider while competitors such as UUNet (now part of MCI WorldCom Inc.) and Digex (now part of Intermedia Communications Inc.) have been bought.

PSINet, which now has 3,500 employees, got bigger by going on a spending spree, buying other companies and relentlessly building infrastructure all over the world. It was this growth in size that most attracted investors, who are betting that PSINet is securing a place for itself in the wired future.

"They're one of the few with global reach," said William Whyman, an Internet analyst with Legg Mason Precursor Group. Whyman said the promise of overseas communications opportunities is just starting to be seen. In 1999 alone, PSINet acquired 42 other worldwide Internet service providers.

"We had to buy more companies and move faster," said Schrader. "We are much larger than we were at the beginning of last year."

PSINet's debt, which reached $3 billion in the third quarter, reflects its increased spending. "They borrowed money to build that worldwide infrastructure," said Ulric Weil, an analyst with Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group Inc. "They're going for broke."

As communications companies get bigger and bigger, PSINet watchers have made a habit of predicting when the company will be purchased (another reason for the stock's success). Schrader's guess: in the next three to five years by a large U.S. or international telecommunications company for a very high price. "We're a prime takeover target," said Schrader.

While PSINet is considered one of Washington's technology stars, it still isn't making money. It had a third-quarter net loss of $87.7 million on revenue of $140.6 million.