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June 2009
A Clear Path to the Information Highway
By Ellison Clary

     Telecom terminology can seem tedious, brandishing phrases such as “cost-effective network solutions” supporting “multi-protocol, multi-vendor data environments.” But Roddy Broadnax spiffs up the lingo with his excitement about his company’s capabilities.

     “We’re selling products that you watched on Star Trek, the Jetsons and Johnny Quest,” says the regional director for Spirit Telecom.

     That’s what his Columbia-based communications firm offers, he says, to prospects he’s called on in Charlotte for nearly a year. He uses the slightly more technical phrase—“Business Class Services”—to describe the mix of local and long distance, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and multiprotocol switching.

     Already, Spirit Telecom provides selected services to units of the City of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, as well as to a growing number of small- and medium-sized companies.

     Broadnax and his boss Vernon Williams believe Spirit Telecom, a household word in South Carolina, can make a name for itself in North Carolina, particularly Charlotte. The pair of Rock Hill, S.C., natives anticipates bigger Queen City accounts. Down the road, Spirit Telecom could occupy a higher profile than its unnamed center city building on North Myers Street affords. If plans work out, offices in a tall center city building aren’t out of the question.

     If you’re skeptical about comparing fantasy gadgets from science fiction and cartoons with real-life communications options, Williams can surprise you. Take medical applications, for instance.

     Williams, the chief executive and president of Spirit Telecom, envisions a specialist at a central hospital location, say Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, working remotely with doctors helping a patient in a rural community such as Barnwell, S.C. The specialist in Charleston would be connected via telecommunication with the nurse and doctor in Barnwell and could peer at a computer screen showing the inside of a patient’s ear, nose or throat.

     “Economical, real-time, high definition,” Williams says. “It doesn’t cost thousands and thousands of dollars to do this anymore. I think we’re going to see more and more of this ‘telemedicine’ because there is a shortage of general practitioners in this country—especially in rural areas.”

     Medical is one of many applications for new and anticipated telecommunication capabilities such as VoIP, on-demand audio, on-demand Web and on-demand video. Other segments ripe for a telecom revolution are banking, accounting and legal.

 

Dual Duty

     Williams actually is chief executive of two companies—Spirit Telecom and the related PalmettoNET. Although separate companies, they are both owned by the same independent telephone companies of South Carolina.

     Spirit Telecom consists of a number of independent telephone cooperatives in South Carolina as well as privately held independent phone firms that are investors in Spirit. The oldest member traces its origin to 1896, but Spirit Telecom is much newer.

     In the 1990s, several of these Palmetto state phone companies formed a long distance provider called South Carolina Net. Subsequently, they created IScan for private networks to businesses. Then came switching services under the banner IDN. Finally, they added Info Avenue, an Internet hosting firm.

     When the economy dipped in 2002, the other phone companies decided to combine the quartet into one: Spirit Telecom.

     PalmettoNET dates to the mid-1980s when many of the same South Carolina telephone companies founded a “carrier’s carrier.” Williams calls PalmettoNET a wholesaler of intercity broadband network services to retail carriers, both wireless and wire lines. It operates a network of more than 3,100 miles of fiber throughout the Carolinas.

     Though totally separate companies, Spirit Telecom and PalmettoNET share space in the four-story Palmetto Technology Park building in downtown Columbia. Spirit has 125 employees, PalmettoNET 27. Besides Charlotte, the companies share points of presence in Raleigh, Greensoboro, Asheville and Wilmington in North Carolina, Greenville-Spartanburg and Charleston in South Carolina, and Savannah in Georgia.

     PalmettoNET essentially provides the infrastructure on which Spirit Telecom bases its expansion plans. Spirit Telecom is classified as a competitive local exchange company, or CLEC. As such, it is not regulated. Among the myriad local exchange firms across the nation, Spirit Telecom is small, providing about 45,000 telephone lines in South Carolina.

     Williams, who retired from GTE after 27 years, discontinued his consulting services to take the reins of the two firms in 2007.

     “We’re doing well, I’m very pleased to say,” Williams smiles, “in spite of the economy.” He characterizes the company’s 4 percent to 5 percent annual growth as “modest.” That’s changing for the better.

     “We’ve have been selected by some large customers like the State of South Carolina,” he says. The company was awarded the VoIP contract for the state’s 40,000-plus employees this past year.

     Williams, 60, sees Spirit Telecom as a Carolinas-centric company, at least for the near term. North Carolina is fertile for expansion, he feels, and he doesn’t discount adding significant customers in the state.

     “We’re not new to the Charlotte market,” adds W.J. Jordan, vice president of sales at Spirit. “We’ve been serving business customers in the Charlotte area for 16 years with long-distance services.”

     “We have helped many government agencies and companies launch and maintain Internet and other communications services. We have a suite of products and services offered across a robust fiber-optic Carolinas Network with an IP switching platform capable of serving the needs of small businesses as well as large complex enterprise corporate opportunities,” Jordan adds.

 

Optimistic For Charlotte Growth

     Signing up new customers in Charlotte could help Spirit Telecom grow at the more impressive rate Williams foresees, perhaps 10 percent or more each year. Though the company doesn’t presently have any Charlotte-area clients as large as $100,000-plus annually, Williams is optimistic that the efforts of Broadnax will pay off. So is Broadnax.

     “We work with many of the big banks in South Carolina managing their multi-state broadband network,” Broadnax says. “So we’ve taken the reputation we’ve earned in South Carolina and brought it to Charlotte. We’ve already started courting more national banks. We’ve got a proven track record for success that gets us to the next level.”

     Indeed, Broadnax has grown familiar with Charlotte. The 51-year-old has been in the Queen City since 1994, first with Alltel, then with two different marketing companies he created, and finally with Sotto Wireless. A Charlotte resident, he joined Spirit Telecom in July 2008.

     Williams describes his company’s sweet spot. “We would like to come in and offer you a voice, a video and a data application that is tailored to you,” he says. “It enables you to collaborate, communicate and be innovative with your customers so you can be successful.”

     With competitive prices, Spirit Telecom tries to provide a “differential advantage,” Williams explains, “to help our customers to sell more, reduce expenses or reduce the amount of capital expenditures.”

     The communications innovations of Spirit Telecom can make it possible for a multiple individuals in separate locations around the world to dial each other on their laptop computers and hear and see each other. It’s the latest version of video conferencing, without the special rooms and bulky equipment.

     Companies can expand their footprint with such applications, and that’s a big selling point for Broadnax. Individual conferencing capability cuts jet travel and land vehicle mileage. That makes it a “green” alternative and it saves time, he points out.

     All Spirit Telecom’s products can be combined into a personal computer that uses one electrical plug. That begs the question: With such convenience, why doesn’t Spirit Telecom find faster success in signing up clients?

     “Change,” Williams says with a grin. “It’s here. Change is happening. Once people see it, see how it works and try it, they’re going to say, ‘I need to do that.’”

     Though the company will work with any business with at least 15 employees, it has its eye on bigger fish. It competes with a long list of providers, including AT&T and Verizon.

     The overall plan for Spirit Telecom in the Tar Heel state is to follow the already well-developed carrier capabilities of PalmettoNET, which plans to enhance its fiber line infrastructure.

     “Five years from now, you will see PalmettoNET more integrated in North Carolina,” Williams predicts. “We’re going to spend a lot of money in North Carolina.” He mentions Wilmington and Raleigh prominently.

     “We’ll spend a lot of money in Charlotte,” he adds, calling it the company’s main emphasis.

 

Finance and Health Care Targets

     The overall plan for Charlotte is to concentrate on the business voice, video and data markets and to strongly pursue clients in finance and health care.

     “In the next five years, I see us doing business with at least 20 percent of the regional banks in Charlotte,” Williams says. “And for at least one of the big banks, we’ll be a trusted provider in new technology. I’m talking Wells Fargo, Bank of America and BB&T. I think we can serve that type of client.”

     Spirit Telecom can benefit from the natural inclination of large financial institutions to reduce risk by spreading their communication business among several providers, he thinks.

     “I also want to be in the door at Carolinas HealthCare and Novant,” Williams adds, switching to the medical sector. He’d like to be involved with the medical schools at the University of North Carolina, Duke University and Wake Forest University. He cites Spirit Telecom’s ties to the Medical University of South Carolina.

     Cracking Charlotte will take time, Williams concedes, and he and Broadnax are content to build business through personal contacts, service with civic organizations, and close relationships with those who sign on.

     Broadnax points out his community involvement record since the mid-1990s includes the Charlotte Chamber, the Charlotte Touchdown Club, Girls on the Run of Charlotte, the Hood Hargett Breakfast Club and St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church.

     These connections are bound to help in convincing prospects to give Spirit Telecom a try, Broadnax believes.

     And for each new customer, Broadnax and Williams pledge personal attention.

     “If something is not going right, a new client should be able to pick the phone up and call Roddy’s business card, and he’ll answer,” Williams says. “Day or night, if you call my office number, it’s on my cell. So it’s a personal relationship. If my customers are not successful, we will not be successful.”

     Meanwhile, Spirit Telecom will remain abreast of rapidly evolving communications capabilities, Williams and Broadnax promise.

     Williams sees the term “collaboration” growing in importance, with people eschewing big gatherings around a conference table in favor of constant communication through individual computers.

     “It’s going to be video, text, twitter types of things,” Williams says. “It’s about keeping an idea alive and making it grow. It’s a different way of doing business.”

     In medicine, for example, Williams points out that transcription services remain a major cost. “Instead of using that, doctors can pick the phone up and just talk,” he says. “It’ll be transcribed immediately, with 99-plus percent accuracy, regardless of the inflections in your voice.”

     Change will continue its acceleration, Broadnax predicts. “We’re now dealing with younger people who have grown up using technology,” he says. “They’re very open to making the changes we’re proposing.

     “It’s kind of enjoyable to visit a prospect and have hard questions asked,” he smiles, “because they’ve done their homework. In return, we’re bringing the solutions they’re looking for.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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