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3Com spinoff finds new life

Internet telephony company CommWorks aspires to carve out its own niche after years of toiling in obscurity as part of 3Com, despite having about $800 million in annual sales.

WASHINGTON--Newfound independence is just the tonic for spinoff CommWorks, a business that was once an afterthought at scattershot 3Com, according to analysts and executives.

The recently freed CommWorks--though still a subsidiary of its parent--aspires to carve out its own niche after years of toiling in obscurity at 3Com, despite having about $800 million in annual sales. To that end, the company this week is showing off a set of new Internet technologies for telecommunications carriers here at the ComNet networking industry trade show as a sort of coming-out party, hoping it can translate early success with customers such as Sprint PCS and AT&T into a meaningful niche.

"The prospects are strong for them because the market is starting to embrace multicompany networks," said Laurie Gooding, senior analyst with industry watcher Pioneer Consulting.

Their relative obscurity "is their own fault," Gooding said. "They haven't had the best visibility."

The company's roots can largely be found in the former U.S. Robotics--not the currently reconstituted computer-modem maker, but the communications player that was acquired by 3Com in June 1997. Once subsumed into a rapidly defocused 3Com, the parts of CommWorks--Net-access hardware and telecommunications software--seemed largely an afterthought as attention quickly turned to the red-hot Palm handheld.

But as part of a slimmed-down 3Com, CommWorks has found new life as a wholly owned subsidiary of the company. It appears ready to ride out the current storm in the telecommunications industry in order to go public, according to analysts, though executives say no decision has been made about an IPO. CommWorks is only the latest among several spinoffs--such as Avaya, formerly part of Lucent Technologies--either intending to go public or already free from parent companies focused on other businesses.

Mount Prospect, Ill.-based CommWorks is a relatively unique breed of technology provider in the telecommunications industry--a company with about $1 billion in sales expected for this year that remains quite small compared to competitors such as Cisco Systems, Lucent Technologies and Nortel Networks. But it is also far better established than a bunch of start-up competitors such as Sonus Networks, Convergent Networks and Unisphere Networks, among others.

A multibillion-dollar opportunity
All these companies are driving at what most analysts think will be a multibillion-dollar opportunity to upgrade the networks of telecommunications companies so they can carry voice calls using Internet technologies. CommWorks is among the three largest providers of Internet telephony equipment, according to market researcher the Dell'Oro Group.

That focus on the Internet--that is, on IP (Internet Protocol)--is the driving force behind CommWorks' success in providing technology to 17 of the 20 largest telecommunications network operators in the world, according to Irfan Ali, CommWorks' chief executive.

"Given the status of this market, the environment is going to get increasingly competitive," Ali said in an interview here. "In order to succeed, we had to focus (the business) even more."

Ali said a complete separation from an operations standpoint from 3Com will be finished by the end of this summer.

The company this week is demonstrating live Internet-based voice calls using a new version of its flagship hardware device called the Total Control 2000, due to ship in the second half of this year. It also said network operator AARO Broadband Wireless Communications would be the first carrier to test the equipment, and it demonstrated so-called soft-switch software technology, which lets a telecommunications operator mediate Internet calls.

Ali claims the company has a lead of better than a year on competitors because of its approach: CommWorks has worked diligently with companies like AT&T over a span of two years to launch Internet-based voice services. Now CommWorks can use that knowledge, Ali says, to sell similar services to other operators. A comparable method was used for Sprint PCS' wireless Web network, which was built by CommWorks.

With 1,700 employees--700 of them engineers--CommWorks now hopes it can shed any lingering doubts about its focus and extend that approach, according to Ali. "The carrier business was always distinct," he said, recalling its role within 3Com. "Whenever companies overextend themselves and try to do too much, there is a price to pay.

"We've all concluded the issue (at 3Com) was focus," Ali said.

Separately, Unisphere announced its largest customer to date here, signing a contract with Time Warner Telecom.