Unfortunately, neither Williams Companies nor Williams Communications have Drip programs. You can buy shares in them through synthetic Drips, like those provided by www.buyandhold.com and www.sharebuilder.com. However, our main reason for looking at them in these columns is that they compete with Enron's business. I feel that the best way to evaluate a company is to first look at the business it is in, and then look at its competition.
Mr. Broyles and I spoke for about two hours, and I'll do the best I can to squeeze all the information I got from him into this column. Williams entered the communications business in 1985 with Wil Tel. At that time, "the regulatory and fiber optics environment converged," according to Mr. Broyles, and the companies first put fiber in a decommissioned pipeline in the Midwest (using it as a conduit). Ultimately it grew to a coast-to-coast network, and at that time they used the hottest technology available, frame relay. In 1994, LDDS made an offer to buy Wil Tel, and a substantial part of this network was sold to them. Mr. Broyles told me that LDDS became WorldCom, which ultimately merged with MCI to make MCI WorldCom (Nasdaq: WCOM).
They did, however, keep some of the fiber optic network for their Vyvx division, which served the broadcast industry by carrying the vast majority of sports programs. In 1998 their non-compete agreement with WorldCom ended and they began deploying fiber again to provide for carriers. A difference between Enron's network and Williams' network is they use ATM to carry communications, and Enron has a pure IP (Internet Protocol) network. Mr. Broyles states that ATM "allows more flexibility," though I want to discuss this issue with Enron. Checking my telecom references, IP is a method of addressing data and ATM is a switching method that uses fixed cell size to transmit data. We'll need to spend some time looking at the differences here.
One of the advantages of getting into this business has been that Williams can provide services for companies like Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) and SBC Communications (NYSE: SBC). That way, these companies can concentrate on their core competencies and not be concerned with their networks. Right now Williams Communications has 26,000 miles of fiber, and by the end of 2000 they will have completed their network at 33,000 miles. Through arrangements with other companies, they have become a global carrier as well.
Mr. Broyles pointed out that when Williams lays fiber, they place the regeneration stations closer than required. Instead of expanding through additional fiber, they try to upgrade using more advanced equipment, which allows them to expand faster and cheaper.
Finally, we talked about the bandwidth trading issue. Apparently, there are some serious technical issues that need to be resolved. Bandwidth is not easily defined as a commodity like #2 heating oil or kilowatt hours of electricity. Some time ago they considered trading long distance minutes, but felt that it really wouldn't make sense. However, they reevaluated the market and felt that it might work at higher levels. So, they are working on developing standards for bandwidth (like Enron is doing), and they have made Sharon Crow vice president of Bandwidth Markets. Ms. Crow was recently vice president of Merchant Development for Williams Energy Services. This week, I will be speaking to Ms. Crow, and we'll go over that in next week's column.
This race between Williams Communications and Enron is rather critical for us as Drip investors, since one of the important criteria for Rule Breaker companies is the "first mover" status. Will it be better to invest in a Drip with Enron, or a "synthetic Drip" with Williams Companies or Williams Communications? I don't know at this time, but part of the answer will be which company will be the first mover in bandwidth trading.