New line of opportunity Project: Omni Communications, led by its Turkish-American founder, has won a license to install a satellite-linked wireless phone network in Azerbaijan.

January 18, 1998|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

Derya O. Yavalar is about to take another big risk.

In 1970, he immigrated to America from Turkey with $25 in his pocket. He was 16. On his flight across the Atlantic, he knew just enough English to ask the stewardesses for Coca-Cola after Coca-Cola -- but not enough to ask his seatmates to excuse him to go to the bathroom.

He survived the trip and went on to see his American Dream pay off. He became a U.S. citizen and a successful businessman, working for prominent communications firms such as GTE Corp. before starting his own private firm, Omni Communications Corp. of Mount Washington.

Now he is embarking on an audacious plan, one that brings him back to the culture he left as a boy.

Omni has won an exclusive license to install a satellite-linked wireless phone network in Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic with close lingual ties to Turkey. The potential gains are enormous; Azerbaijan has vast oil reserves and could be poised for an economic boom. Yavalar called the project "the opportunity of a lifetime."

His colleagues are no less enthusiastic. Daniel K. Miller, Omni's general counsel and a frequent business traveler to Azerbaijan, said, "The timing is so fascinating and so exciting. We're really fighting for the title on this one."

However, winning that title won't be easy. Yavalar estimates that the network will cost at least $50 million. Azerbaijan is still in the raw stages of development, and some who have worked with the company said that it might not have the financial strength to fund the project by itself.

Yavalar, though, likes his chances. He foresees $500 million in gross revenue for the first five years of the Azerbaijan project. He said his adopted country stands to gain as much as his company from the undertaking: "What America needs is markets. My goal is to sell American products and American goods by expanding communications."

He said Baltimore, in particular, will benefit from Omni's work in Central Asia. "Azerbaijan needs all sorts of products to be sold out of the U.S.," he said. "Baltimore could be the center of that."

Yavalar said that as early as this year, Omni will open a new headquarters in downtown Baltimore, along with an information hub that would employ as many as 100 people and coordinate the company's far-flung networks. Since Yavalar founded it in August 1994, Omni has operated in Latin America, the Caribbean, eastern Europe and Africa.

While Omni has projects around the world, Yavalar refers to Azerbaijan as "our jewel." There, the issue is not so much expanding communications as building them from scratch. Yavalar and his colleagues at Omni estimate that only about 500,000 Azeris -- out of a population of 8 million -- have land-based phone lines, and 700 villages in the country are without even a single phone.

Yavalar first approached the Azeri government in 1994. The negotiations didn't go well at first. "We thought we could obtain a license and just walk in there," he said. "That wasn't the case."

Officials turned down his initial application for a license. The headstrong Yavalar was undeterred. "They couldn't defeat my purpose because I was helping their country, offering them a total solution."

The "total solution" Yavalar had in mind was a wireless phone network connected by satellites, an approach that many observers say makes sense for an underdeveloped country like Azerbaijan. David Berndt, a telecommunications analyst for the Yankee Group in Boston, said, "In some of these areas it's much cheaper to put a satellite station in than it is to run wires everywhere. You see satellites able to do more and more things at lower costs."

Don Strickland, a Melbourne, Fla.-based Vertex Communications Corp. executive who has worked with Yavalar and hopes to bid for the Azeri project satellite equipment contract, said satellites "allow you to go great distances without worrying about digging up roads and putting up towers. They're easy to maintain. You don't have to deal with people cutting your lines."

After months of waiting and repeated trips between Baltimore and Baku, the Azeri capital, Yavalar and Omni got their way. Last June 25, the government awarded Omni an exclusive 20-year license.

Whether that license will bear fruit remains to be seen. Clifford V. Seymour, who worked for the Bahamas Telecommunications Corp. in Nassau, a firm that has a joint venture agreement with Omni, said, "I think Darya's a pretty aggressive type of fellow. As long as he has good equipment at competitive prices, I have no doubt that he'll make it."

Strickland said of Yavalar, "I think his biggest challenge right now is getting the financing to get the whole thing set up. It's kind of outside the experience of someone the size of Omni to finance a network internally."

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