Welcome to the Silicon Speedway

With all the attention given to the Silicon alleys, valleys and prairies, the Detroit area may finally make it on the map as the Silicon Speedway, partly thanks to some diligent visionaries sitting at high-powered computers in a converted doctor's office in Dearborn.

In the city that was once home to Henry Ford, inventor of the Model T, Apex Global Information Systems (AGIS) quietly hums away, revolutionizing industry for the 21st century just as Ford did for the 20th.

AGIS is a small, independently owned company that has, in just four years, become a major player in the Internet world. It controls and operates its own fiber optic network (the physical lines that carry data) and hundreds of POPs (points of presence) across the country. (POPs are the local offices, with computers running 24-7, where your e-mail messages go first on their path to where they're going, and the last place they hit before arriving at your desktop.)

An estimated 15 percent to 25 percent of all Internet traffic now travels AGIS' networks. To put it simply, if their computers went down, the Internet would break -- which is exactly what happened back in April 1997 when the AGIS system went down one Friday afternoon.

At the time, reports speculated that hackers may have caused the shutdown, which wiped out connections to thousands of metro Detroit customers and nearly all of AGIS' clients on the East Coast. They never did figure out what caused it, but a sturdy backup system automatically kicked in when the outage occurred, and most users were back up by the following day.

AGIS got its first big break when the National Science Foundation (NSF) decided to get out of the increasingly commercial Internet business. It handed over service contracts for maintaining its networks to six commercial firms -- five telecommunications companies and one network systems company: AGIS.

Alan Wood, executive vice president of operations and engineering, was one of the few people there when the company's founder and CEO, Philip Lawlor, began building the empire.

"Phil, as his nature is, invited himself to several (of the first) meetings with the NSF," says Wood. "I thought he would succeed, but the scope of the project was overwhelming. He said he was gonna do something big (and) he had the capacity to see that the Internet was going to take off."

On New Year's Eve 1994, Wood and Lawlor set up their first POP in Santa Clara, CA -- the first of the company's many networking facilities to be installed across the country.

They now have offices in Herndon, VA (in addition to Dearborn and Santa Clara), 85 employees, and one of the industry's top telecommunications experts in Farooq Hussain, who came on board last year. Hussain was previously second in command at MCI under Vint Cerf, one of the "godfathers" of the Internet.

They also expanded their service earlier this year, when they made a $260 million deal with Denver-based Qwest Communications to buy access to Qwest's network. It made AGIS one of the 10 fastest Internet backbones in the country.

Overall, there are basically four primary telecommunications companies in the industry, Wood explains. The biggest player is UUNet, which is owned by WorldCom. Sprint and MCI are Nos. 2 and 3. And AGIS is No. 4.

What that means isn't exactly easy to pin down. AGIS considers its primary business as peddling wholesale bandwidth to telephone companies and Internet service providers; they also build private networks for large companies such as Electronic Data Systems (EDS), and operate facilities where customers can house their own servers.

What they don't do is provide dial-up service to Internet users like you and me. They're a layer -- and sometimes several layers -- above that.

"We're the truck that hauls the data," Wood explains.

But they're not only hauling data. "People don't care about data so much. They care about voice and video -- they want to see and hear what's going on. They don't want to read a lot of text on-screen. The more real we make it, the more people will want it."

AGIS sees itself ultimately becoming a global leader in telecommunications by focusing on voice and video transmission.

Businesses outside the U.S. are now investing in American telecommunications in order to cut their long-distance phone charges. For example, European companies needing high-speed telecommunications access to Asia are finding that it's cheapest to go through the United States.

"By and large, all Internet traffic worldwide comes to the U.S. This is where 90 percent of everything resides," Wood explains. "I think we'll see the United States become this enormous conduit from coast to coast for the whole world."

For AGIS, that means more business opportunities -- they've just approached it from a different perspective. Instead of being a telecommunications company with an Internet division, they are an Internet company evolving into a telco.

"In the not-too-distant future," Wood predicts, "we're looking into providing long-distance services and even home-user dial tones, which is a very different approach than what all the other companies did."

And it's all in our back yard. Welcome to the future.

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