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Ex-UVa Student Turns Heads, Profits as a High-Profile Internet Provider

From Daily Progress
August 16, 1999

By Dennis O'Brien, Associated Press

When he was growing up, Edward Fang honed his business skills by helping build his family's home-based figurine and porcelain importing business into C&F Enterprises, a $30 million-a-year global enterprise.

Now, the 30-year-old Fang runs his own global enterprise VisiNet, a Newport News-based Internet service provider. In just three years, VisiNet's gone from a start-up to being the state government's exclusive Internet provider - with revenues in the millions - through a combination of timing, goals and adaptability.

After attending the University of Virginia, Fang began his career in consulting by shuttling between New York, San Francisco and Europe. Globe-trotting soon lost its luster. "I'd traveled 3 million miles in two years and thought that was enough," Fang said. So he got an IOU from C&F Enterprises and built a business that lets people globe-trot from their desktops.

At the time - 1995 - web "browsers" such as Mosaic and Netscape were beginning to make it possible for the average person to navigate the Internet by clicking on icons and pictures instead of typing in computer codes. "When I decided to stop traveling, the Internet was the hottest thing since sliced bread," Fang said. So he decided to build his own "toaster."

Fang's experience with financial computer networks as a consultant gave him the working knowledge to get started. "I thought if we're going to get into it, get into on a large-scale basis - we're going build our own backbone," he said. A backbone in this sense meant buying and leasing direct connections to the Internet from companies that lay cable, such as MCI and Sprint, so that VisiNet's reliability wouldn't depend on someone else's reliability.

Over time, VisiNet has bought large-capacity connections that give the company direct links to about 35 to 40 domestic networks and 30 international networks. And it created a number of redundant network routes to keep its Internet-traffic flowing freely even if one of its main lines jammed or broke. The company also bought a bank of diesel generators to ensure its network could endure even a weeklong power outage. Rather than compete with giants such as America Online for residential Internet traffic, VisiNet made its foray onto the Internet by courting corporate customers, teaching them potential applications and getting them online.

Riverside Health System and First Virginia Banks Inc. were among the first customers. Soon, VisiNet's corporate customers asked for "dial-up" access for their employees, so workers could access their e-mail accounts and networks by modem when they were away from the office. VisiNet obliged. Then customers asked if VisiNet could get dial-up access for friends and family members. VisiNet obliged again. Now, VisiNet has about 400 corporate and 10,000 residential customers.

One of the companies biggest breaks came in 1996, when a consortium of local governments signed on with VisiNet. The eight Tidewater localities - Hampton, Newport News, James City County, Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Suffolk and Portsmouth - banded together in their search for Internet access to have better bargaining power.


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