FUTURISTIC PLANS FOR BALTIMORE 'Teleport' proposal would make Power Plant a communications center

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In a business section story in yesterday's Sun, a quote was mistakenly attributed to Anand Kumar, chief executive officer of the Washington teleport.

In discussing security at teleports, Phil Freedenberg, executive vice president of Federal Engineering Inc., Fairfax, Va., said, "If 00 it's a real working teleport, you have technicians around moving satellite dishes across the sky, and they can't put up with having tourists looking over their shoulders. I'm not sure what there is to be gained by having a lot of tourists running around."

Is Baltimore, a city heretofore best-known for its port, steamed crabs and the Orioles, ready to become a part of the global village?

A group of corporate giants, led by Westinghouse Electric Corp., apparently think it is.

In February, city officials disclosed that a team that includes Westinghouse, American Telephone & Telegraph Co., International Business Machines Corp. and James Rouse's Enterprise Development Co. are working on a plan that calls for ** development of a "teleport" -- a high-technology communications and distribution center -- in the vacant Pier 4 Power Plant at Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

According to an early draft of the proposal, the team hopes to equip the 90-year-old structure with satellite dishes, microwave towers, fiber-optic cabling, production facilities and teleconferencing rooms.

In addition to being a supermarket of world-class telecommunications services, the "Information Power Plant" might house entertainment and amusement centers for the general public, according to the early draft.

Proposed entertainment projects for the complex include the "Global Village Dance Club," a disco with two-way, large-screen satellite hookups to dance clubs around the world, and the "Out of This World Lounge," envisioned as a high-tech watering hole with robotic bartenders, laser-light shows and hologram concerts.

David W. Gillece, acting head of Center City-Inner Harbor Development Inc., the quasi-public agency that oversees Inner Harbor development, said a final decision on the fate of the Power Plant won't be made for some time.

But he said the idea of setting up a teleport in Baltimore is an engaging possibility. "The teleport concept is intriguing in and of itself, apart from what facility it might go in," Mr. Gillece said.

Though it may be "intriguing," is it realistic?

According to some industry experts, the idea of establishing a teleport in Baltimore isn't far-fetched -- but it does pose some problems.

For starters, it isn't clear exactly who would use such a facility in Baltimore, a city known more for its international shipping than for global communications.

Dean G. Popps, president of the Dallas/Fort Worth Teleport, said that teleports are expensive to set up and maintain and that some cities just can't generate the business to justify the expense.

"No matter how glitzy a waterfront development you have, the business base has to be there or you won't be able to make a go of it," Mr. Popps said.

As some cities have already found out, not all businesses need, or are willing to pay for, fancy high-tech communications services. Teleport projects in Columbus, Ohio, San Antonio, and Vail, Colo., fell flat after business failed to materialize.

Successful teleports seem to have certain characteristics in common.

According to Frost & Sullivan Inc., a consulting company in New York, most of the nation's 60 working teleports in 1989 served major metropolitan areas from outlying locations that tend to be free of structures that can interfere with satellite transmissions. Remote areas, unlike downtown locations, also tend to offer more room for expansion.

Even more important than location is having a built-in customer base, the common denominator of most successful teleports, said Robert Catlin, general manager of the New York Teleport.

Mr. Catlin said successful teleports tend to be in markets with an expanding need for international communications, electronic video feeds and high-speed data transmissions. Markets where needs are local or regional -- as opposed to national or international -- tend not to fare as well, he said.

"I don't think it fits everywhere because there's not a need for it everywhere," he said.

Richard Gonzalo of the World Teleport Association on Staten Island, N.Y., says simply, "It's a matter of, if there is a market, you build a teleport; if there isn't, you don't."

Those markets have varied considerably.

The New York Teleport, for example, caters to Manhattan's voracious appetite for international communications services emanating from Wall Street and the legions of broadcasters there.

The teleport, which is on Staten Island, offers high-speed data and video transmissions to and from the teleport, and among the major business centers of the region, while a satellite communications center allows customers to transmit information to and from points worldwide.

The site's fiber-optic network competes with Nynex, the local phone company that serves New York, pitting the teleport head-to-head with the "Baby Bell" for corporate business.

The 350-acre facility, jointly owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Merrill Lynch & Co. and New York City, also offers plenty of real estate options: The site offers a high-technology office park that today is home to some corporate bigwigs, Dun & Bradstreet, Nomura Computer Corp. and Allstate Insurance among them.

The Washington International Teleport, by contrast, has made ahealthy business by minding primarily one market: broadcasters.

Headquartered in Alexandria, Va., Washington's teleport has grown into a viable business by providing video feeds to the scores of domestic and international broadcasters in the nation's capital.

Unlike the New York Teleport, the one in Washington doesn't compete directly with the regional Bell, Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., though it is expanding into other markets that could pose a threat to C&P.; And the Washington facility also doesn't lease space to outside businesses.

In Dallas, the teleport serves a different but also growing need for fiber and satellite links. Its customers are primarily a growing network of Fortune 500-sized customers and the planned community of Las Colinas. The George Jetson-style development, built by Trammell Crow, offers residents a plethora of high-tech services, including a high-speed monorail, interactive cable and security systems and an up-to-the-minute telecommunications network.

The Dallas teleport was founded as an amenity of Las Colinas, but Mr. Popps said it didn't take long to figure out that the teleport could also become an integral part of the corporate community. Clients include J. C. Penney and Texas Instruments.

It isn't clear who would use a Baltimore teleport.

Baltimore's financial district, though respectable, doesn't challenge Wall Street in its communications needs, and the broadcast community here is small. Not only that, the Washington teleport is already willing to serve any Baltimore-based customer who needs a video or satellite link.

And with the average teleport costing about $5.3 million to outfit with equipment alone -- a price that does not include maintenance, real estate or day-to-day operating expenses -- cities are well-advised to tread slowly before committing themselves to any teleport-style project, said Phil Freedenberg, executive vice president of Federal Engineering Inc. in Fairfax, Va.

"Other than a few local news stations, it's not clear what kind of customers Baltimore would have," he said.

If Westinghouse and its partners have the answer to that question, they aren't saying. Westinghouse and its partners declined requests from The Sun to talk about the project or even to engage in a broader discussion of teleports.

Another potential problem with the Baltimore teleport project is focus -- or lack of it.

According to some industry experts, Westinghouse's approach of trying to integrate a high-tech teleport with the entertainment-oriented Inner Harbor could be problematic.

The reason: Most teleports tend to be high-security areas, a product of the sensitive, often proprietary, nature of the information that they handle.

At the New York Teleport, for example, security is strict. Guests must pass through several checkpoints to enter buildings, and then only with an escort. Many buildings have no windows, and windows that are apparent are small and bulletproof.

Similarly, the Washington teleport is a high-security compoundwith 24-hour surveillance.

Under Westinghouse's plan, Baltimore's teleport would be anything but foreboding.

The plan calls for high-security data and satellite sites to be housed in the same building with dining halls and a saloon open to tourists.

"There's a risk in trying to be everything to everybody, of trying to provide every niche service," said Anand Kumar, chief executive officer of the Washington teleport. "You have to have a proper focus.

"If it's a real working teleport, you have technicians around moving satellite dishes across the sky, and they can't put up with having tourists looking over their shoulders," he said. "I'm not sure what there is to be gained by having a lot of tourists running around."

On the other hand, the Westinghouse plan has the cash flow advantage of allowing non-communications activity to carry the Baltimore teleport for a few years, or until enough customers are acquired to assure a positive revenue flow.

According to Scott Chase, editor of Via Satellite, a Bethesda-based trade publication that follows the satellite industry, that is a solid approach. "Mixed-use facilities are the safest bet," he said. "The whole idea is to pool demand to create a level of demand high enough to maintain the facilities installed."

That was the approach taken in Dallas -- with good results.

In addition to high-technology communication facilities, a hotel and Hollywood-style sound stages occupy the grounds of the Dallas-Fort Worth teleport. Movie blockbusters such as "Robo Cop" and "Terms of Endearment" were produced there.

Others pooh-pooh the idea that Baltimore might not have enough customers to warrant investing in a teleport, saying customers tend to materialize -- often from places never imagined -- once teleport-style services are available.

"Whatever list of users you imagine is never the complete list of customers who ultimately wind up using it," Mr. Chase said.

To test that theory, Westinghouse is first going to have to sell Baltimore on its teleport proposal.

While an intriguing possibility, the teleport is but one of several proposals for the Power Plant that have been submitted to the city.

Other ideas suggested include a downtown branch of the Baltimore Museum of Art; a branch of the Hard Rock Cafe, or Carlos and Charlie's, a nightclub with a Prohibition-era speakeasy theme; a children's museum; and several versions of a family-oriented entertainment complex.

More ideas may surface by the time formal proposals are due. According to Mr. Gillece, formal bids for the vacant Power Plant building won't be solicited until the current economic slump ends.

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