Bechtel's telecom unit puts new lab to the test

Facility to be used to try out equipment for customers

October 05, 2001|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

Bechtel Corp. knows how to build things. The 103-year-old company did, after all, help construct the Hoover Dam and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Now, the company's Frederick-based telecommunications division has built something else, though not on such a grand scale - a 4,500-square-foot lab to serve employees and customers.

"The whole concept here is we surround the lab," said George Conniff, president of Bechtel's telecommunications and industrial global business unit. "The lab is the center of our universe."

The lab is smack in the middle of several of the telecom unit's offices. Inside the lab, 37 black-and-white racks - some empty, some partly filled - stand waiting to be stacked with telecom equipment.

Bechtel Telecommunications, a telecommunications construction and engineering business, is to officially open its lab in a ceremony this morning.

The lab will be used to test equipment for customers. It will also have, perhaps, a greater purpose: to revolutionize the image of the company's telecommunications unit.

Bechtel formed the telecom unit in 1996, after Congress passed the Telecommunications Act to deregulate the industry. Today, Bechtel Telecommunications is a $2 billion business, Conniff said. It has more than 1,500 employees, and about 300 of them share the five-building Frederick campus with workers from Bechtel's power unit.

The telecom unit does not manufacture anything. Instead, it tests equipment and builds telecommunications infrastructure - wireless and wire line.

A company could hire Bechtel Telecommunications to build a fiber-optic network that would carry voice and data information across the country. In that case, the telecom unit would design the site, buy the equipment, test it and install it.

At its new lab, Bechtel Telecommunications can test whether equipment from different companies is compatible on a network before actually installing the equipment. "We'll do that in the lab environment instead of the real environment where somebody spends $1 billion and it doesn't work," Conniff said.

Companies can also hire Bechtel to test its equipment as an impartial party.

The lab - dubbed the Training, Demonstration and Research, or TDR, Laboratory - took about a year to build and cost about $2 million.

A half-dozen people work inside the lab, said the facility's manager, Sam Wells.

The racks of equipment are controlled by three computers, which can be projected onto a screen hanging from the ceiling. A conference room with a large window overlooks the laboratory, and there is an adjacent training room.

It is hooked into the 890-acre Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, managed by Bechtel, so testing can be linked at both sites.

"This is really the leading edge, because you get to touch a little of everything," Wells said.

Conniff says he hopes the lab will become a central part of Bechtel Telecommunications' business.

In 1996, Bechtel had a reputation for knowing a lot about big construction projects but nothing about the telecommunications industry, Conniff recalled.

Now, it is a full-service high-tech business, he said.

Until late last year, its biggest competition came from telecom vendors - such as Nortel Networks Corp. and Lucent Technologies Inc.

"The playing field's a lot more level now," Conniff said.

Despite the telecom slowdown, he said, Bechtel Telecommunications can grab enough of the market to stay busy.

"We can capture more of the market than we could when the vendors were king," Conniff said.

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