Washington D.C.: Home of the Internet

Black entrepreneurs are leveraging infotech contracting expertise to mine commercial Internet opportunities

P> In 1992, Samuel Metters, the CEO and founder of McLean, Va.-based Metters Industries Inc., often woke up in the middle of the night to jot down business ideas. His subsequent efforts to lure big company partners to bid on wireless communications licenses proved fruitless. Yet Metters refused to abandon his dream of building a piece of the information superhighway for the black community.

Today, he presides over MettersMEDIA Network Inc., a 1995 start-up that launched United States Black On-Line (USBOL). One of the nation's first black-owned national Internet access providers, the service joins scores of Internet access companies that have sprouted in the Washington area -- including a clutch of minority-run companies that got their start in the government contracting business.

"This venture is not merely driven by profit. We are providing a forum and a resource for people to learn about the history and the achievements of African Americans. This is something that is good for America," said Metters.

MettersMEDIA's Internet play is part of a trend among local black-owned computer service firms to enter the highly competitive Internet services arena. In addition to having the largest and richest community of blacks in the nation, the Washington, D.C., area is home to some of the most successful black-owned computer service companies. Metters Industries, with about $45 million in annual revenues, has twice been listed on Washington Technology's list of the region's 50 fastest growing high-tech companies.

Proximity to the federal government and the opportunity offered through the Small Business Administration's 8(a) program has enabled companies such as Metters Industries to prosper. Now, many of these companies are leveraging experience with the government's most sophisticated communications users to play a key role in the Internet business. Just like that, they find themselves sitting in the center of the world's hottest market.

Tomco Systems, a 10-year-old 8(a) software and network engineering firm based in Temple Hills, Md., recently launched an Internet services operation. Tomco offers consulting and training; domain name search and registration; home page development; high bandwidth connections; and Internet access for individuals and organizations.

An Internet service consumer report in the Prince Georges County Journal last month rated Tomco's 28.8 kbps service as "one of the cleanest and fastest connections" among Internet service providers in Prince Georges County.

Despite the threat posed by telecommunications giants who are expected to become Internet providers, Tomco President Columbus W. Thomas predicted Internet services will play a dominant part in his business in the next five to 10 years. An 8(a) company for the past seven years, 70-employee Tomco expects to graduate from the program within the next few years by developing business outside federal government contracts. Its Internet push so far has netted mostly small business clients and a few of its current federal government clients, such as the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

Sanyakhu-Sheps Amar?, CEO of Sphinx Communications Group, Inc., a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Internet consulting company, said 8(a) and non-8(a) computer services companies should provide Internet services to enhance competitiveness.

"By offering Internet services, a company in the government contracting business enhances its value to a federal client. A client should not have to go somewhere else for Internet services," Amar? said.

Joe Jackson, vice president of business development and marketing at the Alexandria, Va.-based Systems Engineering and Management Associates Inc., said his company is developing Internet capabilities to complement its skills in computer and telecommunications systems development. "Providing Internet services is a logical extension of our core businesses."

Jackson said having Internet skills is absolutely necessary for SEMA, whose revenues in 1995 were $23.5 million.

"Any high-tech company lacking Internet capabilities is not going to make it in the next century," Jackson said.

Andr? M. Carrington, a spokesman for Lanham, Md.-based Maxima Corp., said the computer services firm is formulating an Internet strategy.

"It's another tool in our arsenal. Having Internet skills gives us the ability to offer new technology to our clients," Carrington said.

Joe Hawkins, president of Maxima's Computer Systems division, said the growing use of the Internet by government agencies to publish procurement information could provide new business for the corporation. "Our business clients are asking us to help them use the Internet to learn about government procurement opportunities. We have the capability of helping them adapt to the world of electronic commerce," Hawkins said.

Hawkins added that Maxima wants to assist historically black colleges and universities use the Internet. Having worked with black colleges and universities, Maxima is in a good position to help black institutions acquire the necessary expertise.

MettersMEDIA Develops Black-Oriented Content

MettersMEDIA, and its United States Black On-Line service, is the first of two Washington area efforts to develop black-oriented content for the Internet. The recently announced alliance between the Washington, D.C.-based Black Entertainment Television and Microsoft Corp. is the other.

To help realize his goal, CEO Samuel Metters turned to Kendall White last year, a software engineer formerly with the northern Virginia-based MITRE Corp., to build USBOL into a dominant service for the black community. White and Metters, a trained architect, developed USBOL's World Wide Web site, and the company began signing up customers for Internet service last July.

USBOL is building its Web site to include reference information about black Americans and access to magazines, newspapers and other black publications not currently available on the Internet. USBOL's Internet software incorporates Netscape's Navigator browser, and dial-up access is available in 105 cities. In early marketing efforts, USBOL is building its customer base largely by making deals with prominent black organizations.

By signing up groups, such as the Washington, D.C.-based Blacks In Government organization, MettersMEDIA will attempt to provide Internet service to the group's individual members.

MettersMEDIA is a separate company from Metters Industries, an engineering and information technology services contractor with approximately $45 million in annual revenues. White said USBOL plans to sign up between 25,000 to 50,000 customers in 1996. Metters added that he wants to see MettersMEDIA become profitable by early 1997.

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