Building a Hub

Of Optimism in Telecom

Industries often celebrate success by honoring their superstars. But those are hard to come by in the not-quite-recovered telecom industry, so a local organization is calling three distinguished strugglers to the podium: Primus Telecommunications Group Inc., XO Communications Inc., and Talk America Holdings Inc.

A new series sponsored by the TelecomHub networking group, which also marks the Washington area organization's fifth anniversary, will feature a monthly presentation by a leader of one of the selected companies. The combative theme: "Telecom Fights Back!"

As TelecomHub President Barry Toser concedes, the fight's not over. "Primus is not out of the woods, XO is starting to bounce back, but Talk America is battling for their survival right now," he said. "It's not all the way out of the woods yet."

This month's featured speaker is K. Paul Singh, chief executive of Primus. The McLean company had been written off as dead three years ago, before it managed to buy back a large chunk of its debt. But recently the company admitted that it has been slow to offer bundled services. Last week, without confirming or denying the allegations, it paid the Federal Communications Commission $400,000 over possible violations of the do-not-call restrictions on telemarketing.

Next month's speaker, Carl J. Grivner, chief executive of XO, might have much to say about running a company that made it out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. But the Reston company, even with the backing of billionaire financier Carl C. Icahn and the purchase of rival Allegiance Telecom Inc., has yet to show it can increase sales.

Rounding out the calendar in November is Gabriel A. Battista, who for the past few years has been the man behind Talk America. Battista acknowledges his company is going through a forced decline again, after having invested in its local-phone business nationwide. This month, Battista said the company would scale back its marketing to three main states -- Georgia, Michigan and Illinois -- blaming regulatory changes that threaten to raise costs.

More broadly, employment figures from the Labor Department suggest that the number of workers in Washington's telecommunications sector is still on a gradual decline. In July, the area employed 34,100 telecom professionals, down from 35,400 during the same period last year and down dramatically from a high of 50,200 in March 2001.

Toser, who is also senior vice president at Transaction Network Services Inc. of Reston, said it seemed a good time to put on TelecomHub's cautiously optimistic series. Its membership is up by more than 35 from last year, to 500 individuals. And the number of company sponsorships has doubled this year. "I sense in my day-to-day work that things have been picking up."

-- Yuki Noguchi

K. Paul Singh