Beam Me Up
This is you: You pay a company to beam you an invisible signal from outer space or pump a stream of electrons through a wire in your wall so that crisp images show up on your television.
You pay a second company, meanwhile, to beam another set of signals from steel towers placed around town that are, in some cases, camouflaged to look like half-assed palm trees so that you can carry on conversations on your cell phone. Move too far away from the towers, though, and your phone doesn't work so well.
And you pay a third company to send yet another phantom stream of electrical signals into your home so that Internet web pages show up on your laptop computer. But take your laptop more than about 50 feet outside your house and this signal craps out. Which is why you find yourself drinking inordinate amounts of foamy hot beverages so that you can leave your house and still use your computer in the bubble of Internet connectivity that surrounds the coffee shop at the mall.
OK, you three-company-paying, signal-craving tech bitch, now imagine this brave new world:
You're on the road, maybe speeding past swampland on Alligator Alley or crossing the godforsaken Oklahoma Panhandle or winding your way across the Continental Divide on a remote mountain road miles from the nearest speck of a town and suddenly, you get a can't-shake-it need to plug in.
Maybe you have an uncontrollable urge to see what comments have come in after your latest ranting blog entry. Or you're certain your Match.com profile has a couple of dating offers waiting. Or maybe it's just the time of day you normally check TMZ to see Britney's latest bad wardrobe choice.
Whatever the reason, you need your Internet fix, and you can't wait for a Starbucks with a wi-fi hot spot to appear out of the swamp or prairie or pine forest.
So you pull to the side of the road and pop open your laptop, coaxing it back to life.
And BAM! you are online and blazing at high speed, uploading and downloading bulky files like you were hooked up to a T3 connection in a big-city office.
Is that drool on your lip? Wait, it gets better.
With your Internet connection humming, you notice the boyfriend has e-mailed, asking you to call. So out comes the mobile phone. You flip it open and notice that even out here, miles and miles from anything, the signal on your phone is going full blast at five bars of bursting connectivity. In an instant, you're talking to your guy like he's only five feet away. In fact, the sound is so good, you can hear in the background the movie playing on the big-screen TV that he's been watching on the high-definition signal back at the homestead.
So there you have it. One company, one monthly payment, one massive signal delivering all of your electronic needs. There's cell phone coverage coast to coast, including in the remotest of areas. There's a blazing Internet hot spot the size of the entire ever-loving country. You even get that HD signal that's playing back home.
And all of it is courtesy of a high-flying aerial circus, a telecom network built around lighter-than-air platforms hovering at the edge of space, blanketing the nation with an orgy of connectivity and crisp video streams.
Yes, caffeine fiend, it's a lovely dream, a hypnotic dream. And it's important to keep in mind the seductive power of that dream if you want to understand why, for several years, it has lured millions of dollars from the pockets of small investors into the coffers of a Broward County company that promises, some day, that tech utopia.
Retirees with money to burn, college kids playing the stocks from their dorm rooms, average folks with a little extra cash, all hoping to get in on the Next Big Thing before it blows up. The dream is a powerful one.
And it's all built on hot air.
One of the first things you learn about GlobeTel Communications is that the Pembroke Pines company is sensitive about the word blimp.
The technical term for the fleet of 300 floating gasbags it envisions lofting in a grid into the near-space environment of the stratosphere, 13 miles above the surface of the Earth, is high-altitude airships.
And if that's a bit dry, GlobeTel has a sexier name. It calls its not-blimps stratellites.
Get it? STRATosphere saTELLITES. The mashed-up name has a nice NASA-like ring to it that evokes rocket boosters and zero-g gyroscopes. Now, go to the company's website (www.globetel.net) and take a look at a photo of one. We know what you're thinking: Paint Snoopy on the side of that thing and you'd expect to see it floating over the Orange Bowl.
OK, so maybe dirigibles have come a long way since the Hindenburg. Engineers have new space-age materials to wrap around lightweight airship skeletons. Novel technologies make it possible for a lighter-than-air craft to float higher, stay up longer, and be operated remotely. Is it so hard to imagine a squadron of unmanned balloons hovering over the continental United States at an altitude of 65,000 feet, beaming back hi-def reruns of Heroes and blanketing the nation in a warm bubble of next-generation wi-fi coverage?
Plenty of people with money to invest don't seem to think it's so far-fetched.
And so they've held on for a wild financial ride over the past few years as this futuristic scenario has been peddled not by one of the country's major telecom players but by an obscure South Florida company.
Although local media haven't taken note, GlobeTel's fluctuating fortunes have made for dramatic reading in the financial press, which has alternately pumped up the company's blimp enterprise and deflated it.
After a roller-coaster 2005 and 2006, GlobeTel is currently battered and bruised, recovering from the same blunder that brought down Napoleon and Adolf Hitler an unwise Russian gambit. A futile attempt to invade Russia's telecom market fueled months of scathing exposés from financial writers at the Motley Fool and the New York Post. Ultimately, GlobeTel's penny stock was delisted from the American Stock Exchange last summer and now trades over the counter at about 40 cents per share. In addition, the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating GlobeTel's "accounting practices."
But the dream has still not lost its power. Fervent investors continue to burn up Internet forums with defiant defenses of the company they love, even after GlobeTel's stock lost about 90 percent of its value following the Russian debacle, and even though no GlobeTel blimp has floated anywhere near the stratosphere, and even though the company has invested only modest amounts of cash in actual research and development, and even as other, better-known companies like Lockheed Martin spend many more millions on their own blimp dreams.
"I understand what it looks like," says GlobeTel's in-house lawyer, Jonathan Leinwand. "It looks like just another little South Florida scam company."
Well, you said it, Jonathan. But what is a telecom player with these kinds of dreams doing in Pembroke Pines? And could we get a look at a blim er stratellite? And can you do something about our cell phone bill?
The first bad sign: GlobeTel, a communications company, never answers its phone.
The only way to talk to anyone at the company about its plans to revolutionize the world is to make the trek to the best office building Pembroke Pines has to offer.
We know that it's the best cubicle farm in town because the real-estate agents trying to lease empty portions of the building at 9050 Pines Blvd. advertise the Pembroke Pines Professional Center as "Pembroke Pines' most prestigious office building." The selling points: "A four-story atrium lobby, excellent tri-county access halfway between Florida Turnpike and I-75, exceptional building signage opportunities, ample no-cost parking just minutes from many restaurants and retail stores."
Not to mention the heavy aroma of frying chicken wings wafting over from the Hooters just down the street.
But apparently leasing out space to share with GlobeTel has been a hard sell. Jumbo "space available" signs are hammered into the grass out in front of the beige cement building. Current tenants in the four-story suburban bunker include medical labs, a chapter of the Better Business Bureau, a temporary-staffing agency, and an accounting firm.
Just past a funeral services company on the second floor is the door to GlobeTel.
The second bad omen: You ring the bell, walk in, and the receptionist, Jasmine, asks: "Are you another shareholder?"
Uh, why do you ask? The local ones stop by frequently, she says. Some are angry, some have questions, and others are suing.
An avalanche of white office paper stuffed into pressed-wood bookshelves looks like it's about to spill out onto poor Jasmine, who keeps a watchful eye on the door. A few minutes later, Leinwand, GlobeTel's lawyer, emerges, nearly bumping into a copier that is crammed too close to the black vinyl couch and love seat cornered into the front office. Beyond the faux leather seating, you can make out about a dozen or so employees working in cubes and small offices. Leinwand promises to talk later, but now he has to run to a meeting with the board of directors.
Meanwhile, the phone keeps ringing and rolling straight into voice-mail.
GlobeTel executives have already shuttered a suite they had been renting on the first floor, and now it looks as if the company will be moving out of its second-floor space too.
In fact, GlobeTel plans to ditch the Pembroke Pines location entirely. It's looking for classy digs in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
"It's a high-tech company, and it needs to look a bit more high-tech," CEO Peter Khoury says when he gets a chance to sit and talk.
Khoury is of average height. He has a full head of brown, wavy hair; he wears a blue blazer and khakis for a CEO, he's not slick but more like a rumpled professor. A native Australian, he has a faded accent that's a little hard to place, but currently he lives in London and jets to Broward County for a few days at a time.
He says he's running late but then sits and talks for more than an hour. His phone never stops ringing the entire time once he powers down his cell, his office line starts to make noise. Meanwhile, his corner office reflects someone on the go. No photos adorn the walls. There are no papers anywhere. He's an on-the-road type of guy, trying to grow the business, he says.
"I want to turn the company around," he says. He's been with GlobeTel only since October, well after the worst of last year's debacles. And he knows he has a lot of mending to do, particularly in reassuring shareholders who aren't happy.
"I think it's just sad," he says of investors, some of whom are suing the company over its losses. "They had an expectation that wasn't met. We owe it to people to do the best that we can." And he points out that the company has had some recent successes: A wireless contract in Mexico seems to be a step in the right direction.
Khoury won't speak ill of his predecessors. He is the medicine brought in to heal the patient and doesn't want to assign blame. "I wouldn't judge anybody. What I can tell you is what I have today and what I'm working toward... I was asked to come in and fix the company."
And he's got plenty of mending to do if he's going to take GlobeTel up, up, and away.
Before blimps and telecom and high-tech dreams, a company named Terra West Homes was birthed in Nevada in 1979 to build houses in the desert. Later, it peddled shock absorbers, then in the late 1990s sold pharmaceutical and medical supplies, including syphilis detection kits, in places like West Africa. By the end of the century, renamed American Diversified Group Inc. (ADGI), the company had moved to Hickory Hill, North Carolina, and was in the computer business.
But in 2000, ADGI began another transformation, purchasing a couple of small telecom businesses: Miami-based Global Transmedia Communications and NCI Telecom of Missouri. The new, telecom version of ADGI worked out of Miami before moving to the 'burbs.
And in 2002, the company began earning its reputation for, well, inflated rhetoric and gasbagging.
That year, a stock analyst named Paul Taboada at the brokerage house Hornblower & Weeks began releasing sunny statements about ADGI's plans and prospects. It was exactly the kind of thing some investors look for positive news from a reputable trading house about a little-known company about to explode.
But what Taboada didn't mention was that Hornblower & Weeks was also an ADGI client. The company had paid the brokerage firm $30,000 for consulting work, as well as 10 million shares of ADGI stock it valued at $200,000.
Taboada's glowing reports had also failed to mention that ADGI had lost more than $1 million in 2001, had accumulated a debt of more than $20 million, and was hanging on mainly through loans provided by its own executives.
The National Association of Securities Dealers later found that Taboada's reports were such a breach of its practices, it fined him $25,000 and suspended his license for six months.
But the analyst did all right in the end. After the run-in with regulators, he took a new job as a consultant with GlobeTel, ADGI's newest incarnation.
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, a man named Michael Molen was making news for his wild ideas about blimps. In 2002, Molen told the Toronto Star that the "stratellites" of his company, Sanswire, would be working in the stratosphere in "early 2004" at a cost of $36 million. Molen's spiel attracted small investors who wanted in on his scheme.
By early 2004, Molen wasn't any closer to launching blimps, but at that point, he did hire a designer: California garage inventor Vern Koenig, who is something of an enigma. Although he says he has a college degree in naval architecture, Koenig refuses to say where he earned it. He also claims that GlobeTel's competition, Lockheed Martin, which is developing its own set of blimps for homeland security applications, is a front for the CIA. In addition, Koenig recalls that he once sold a model of the Hindenburg to the Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum in Los Angeles for $20,000.
Somehow, in his busy schedule, Koenig stumbled across information about Molen and his stratellite concept on the Internet early in 2004. Koenig made a phone call, "and the next minute, I'm signing an agreement with Mike Molen," he says. "Essentially, that's how I got involved."
Molen wanted progress from Koenig, fast. In August 2004, Molen had promised to fly something for a group of interested investors, including GlobeTel's then-CEO, Timothy Huff.
"They wanted an airship from me to take up a 25-pound payload," Koenig says. But Molen hadn't sent him the money he needed for an August demonstration. "[Molen] calls me up one day and says 'How's the airship coming?' and I told him it's not.
"Apparently, Molen borrowed $10,000 from GlobeTel to buy an ultralight airplane. I got half the airplane built, and I threw it into a rented truck and drove from Redlands, California, to Atlanta. I finished the airplane in Atlanta, and the test was near the airport."
The plan for the test, since stratellites didn't exist yet, was to attach communications gear to the ultralight airplane for a short flight to demonstrate that a craft aloft in the atmosphere could beam down signals the way a satellite in space does. But there was a hitch.
"I told him I can't fly an unlicensed aircraft in commercial airspace. And he said, 'If you fly up there, how much would the penalty be?'"
Koenig told Molen he didn't care how much the fine was; he wasn't going to violate Federal Aviation Administration rules. So Molen wound up attaching wireless cell phone transmitters to a high-altitude helicopter he had rented.
"Molen if he wasn't selling Sanswires, he'd be selling used cars," Koenig says.
Soon after the jury-rigged demonstration, Huff began negotiations to buy Molen's Sanswire. GlobeTel acquired Sanswire's assets at the end of 2004 by paying Molen 6 million shares of GlobeTel stock.
At the time, Molen was in the middle of a personal bankruptcy action. He hadn't paid taxes since 1988 and had debts totaling $2.5 million. He listed a mere $6,200 in assets including $800 in cash, $200 in clothing, and $5,000 in household goods.
Molen also owed several investors personally for loans they'd made to him. Jay Pontrielli, an Atlanta lawyer who represented one of Molen's investors, says it took ten years to recoup a $30,000 loan his client made to Molen and it was Molen's father who settled the debt. The investor, William J. Wager, died during the litigation.
"We had to chase Molen down for several years and then several more years after we got a judgment," Pontrielli says. "It seemed to the people he was able to raise money from that he had a persuasive business plan for this whole stratellite thing... He's left a trail of frustrated creditors chasing after him."
But Molen counters that only a few investors have "made his life miserable." He still thinks his stratellite idea was good. "I wouldn't say that the business plan was a pipe dream," he says in a telephone interview. "In any business, you find investors who believe in ideas.
"We built something from nothing and sold those assets to another company, and they've taken that and run with it. It's not a scam. And it's offensive to hear that."
If GlobeTel's stratellites began life as the helicopter-hoisted concept of a bankrupt Atlanta businessman and his colorful California for-hire inventor, they soon took on a new, glossy corporate sheen, thanks to heaps of GlobeTel P.R. But the company's overheated press releases brought in not only new investors but also the skeptical gaze of investigative reporters in the financial press.
Motley Fool writer Rich Duprey sent up one of the first trial balloons, warning readers in April of 2005 that although GlobeTel's press releases sounded nifty, the company was an unproven one shopping a lofty concept and had no stratellites on the verge of floating to near-space (not to mention the necessary approval of the FAA, NASA, and the Air Force). GlobeTel's blimp army sounded a bit too much like Motorola's failed 1990s plans for satellite phones, its Iridium project, for Duprey's comfort.
The skepticism increased exponentially once GlobeTel announced in July 2005 that the first beneficiaries of its stratellite wireless coverage would be the inhabitants of the jungles of the South American nation of Colombia.
"We just knew it was out there somewhere, like the Yeti, and after all these years and decades of searching, we have found it at last: the ultimate, all-in-one Penny Stock With Everything," mocked former New York Post writer Chris Byron in an August 2005 column. "We're talking about a company that increased its stock price by nearly 500 percent earlier this year by launching itself into a business, 65,000 feet over the snake-infested jungles of Colombia, that looks to be based, both literally and figuratively, on the ultimate marketing tool of Wall Street itself: actual hot air."
Those spikes in stock valuation were really what the company was about, Byron and others warned. GlobeTel, they cautioned, looked like a classic pump-and-dump operation. In other words, a common maneuver in which executives at a company, holding large amounts of company stock, overhype the company's potential for making money in order to bring in investors and temporarily drive up the value of the stock ("pump"). The executives then cash in, selling off large amounts of their stock ("dump") before reality sets in, investors realize the company won't be able to follow through on its grand pronouncements, and the value of the stock takes a nosedive. Byron ridiculed the small investors who had been lured in by the P.R. about blimps over Colombia and the resulting stock inflation.
But Byron and Motley Fool columnist Seth Jayson really aimed their darts at the inflated dreams of GlobeTel when, on December 30, 2005, the company announced that it was taking over Russia.
In typically grandiose fashion, GlobeTel announced that it had entered a binding agreement with a Russian firm named Internafta to provide cell phone service to Russia's 30 largest cities and that Internafta's payments to GlobeTel to provide the equipment for the phone network would amount to $600 million. It sounded like a huge coup for the small Pembroke Pines firm more than half a billion dollars to be a major player in an emerging European market.
The problem was, both Byron and Jayson pointed out, no one in Russia they talked to had ever heard of "Internafta," and there were already well-established telecommunications companies in the former Soviet nation providing cell phone service. How, they wondered, had little GlobeTel managed to leapfrog over the big multinationals like Cisco or Motorola to land such a deal? As the stock price frothed, jumping 75 percent to almost $4 a share immediately after the news release, the two columnists examined every questionable move in the company's past and greeted each delay in Internafta's payments of the huge cash advance with I-told-you-sos.
Since the collapse of the deal in early 2006, some angry investors who watched the company's stock price crash have filed a class-action lawsuit. In their complaint, they lay out what they believe really happened with GlobeTel's Russian maneuver (GlobeTel has asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit). The lawsuit alleges that GlobeTel executives drew up the Russian deal and valued it at $600 million without making any kind of effort to determine what such a system would actually cost, what sort of political or business hurdles might exist in the 30 Russian cities (which were never actually named), or what kind of potential there really was to generate revenue. The company then contracted with a couple of Russian businessmen to find financing, promising them a 2 percent commission ($12 million) to find someone in Russia to provide the $600 million. The two agents in turn contacted a Russian "underground oligarch" named Maxim Vyacheslavovich Chernizov, and the three Russian men formed Internafta a company that manufactured nothing and provided no services. According to the lawsuit, the only reason Internafta was formed was for Chernizov to deliver a line of credit to GlobeTel so the Internafta trio could then split the $12 million commission. And early in 2006, Chernizov provided GlobeTel with a letter of credit for the first $300 million, drawn on a bank in Brazil. But GlobeTel balked, saying that its U.S. banks couldn't accept the Brazilian bank's guarantee. The deal soon fell apart, and GlobeTel's stock price tanked.
Byron and Jayson, meanwhile, called for regulatory action, saying that GlobeTel's shenanigans were exactly the thing the SEC was supposed to be watching for. And in July, the AMEX halted trading on the company's stock.
"Reality has shown that my suspicions were well-founded," Jayson says. "This blimp remains just a 'float-tested' model that's far behind the schedule [GlobeTel] laid out for months. The Russian deal never materialized. They burned cash like crazy. Shareholders got creamed.
"It's pretty easy to figure out who was right about GlobeTel and who was blowing smoke."
Still, there is the dream. And it remains a powerful one. Just spend some time on investor Internet bulletin boards, where you'll encounter GlobeTel shareholders (at least the ones not suing the company) who ridicule naysayers who doubt that GlobeTel can get an army of blimps up to an altitude that blimps have rarely flown.
And about those balloons we never saw any. Although the company is based in Broward County, its airships are being developed in an airport hangar in Palmdale, California.
But GlobeTel fans were excited about a recent test that was held at the California proving grounds. An actual blimp not an ultralight or helicopter standing in for one was lofted carrying communications equipment that created a hot zone for voice and Internet.
The blimp's soaring altitude? One hundred feet. Tethered.
Other groups, however, seem to be having more success. In September of 2005, the nonprofit research organization U.S. Southwest Research Institute managed to keep an airship in the stratosphere for five hours. The craft, called the HiSentinel, carried 27 kilograms of equipment during the demonstration.
GlobeTel's stratellites would need to carry more than 1,000 kilos of equipment for 18 months at a time.
The U.S. government is betting on another company, Lockheed Martin, awarding the longtime aeronautics firm $200 million to build high-altitude ships for homeland security and emergency services. Already, Lockheed airships are working in lower altitudes. (The contract is now in some jeopardy, however, following recent proposed budget cutbacks.)
Government and industry interest in blimps does seem to be growing. It was former President Ronald Reagan's chief of staff, Alexander Haig now a Boca Raton-based infomercial host after all, who was one of the first to float the idea of blimp-based communications in the 1990s. But is GlobeTel the company to make it happen?
For a year and a half, that was the goal of Bob Jones, the NASA engineer GlobeTel employed from 2004 to 2005 to get its stratellites aloft. And during that time, he says, he worked like a dog to get engines, cowlings, and propellers in shape for upcoming tests.
"When I left in September, there were engines in place," Jones says. But in December, Jones received a call from a concerned Michael Sands, who for two years had done contract public relations work for GlobeTel stratellite division and was preparing for a December 14 demonstration for the media.
Sands, who is now suing GlobeTel for allegedly failing to pay him, tells New Times that when he arrived for the test, he was told that there was a problem. The stratellite wouldn't be able to fly.
The demonstration was supposed to feature a blimp powering around on both of its engines, steered remotely. But Sands was told that during testing of the stratellite, damage had been done to a wire harness the electrical wire network that would power things like propellers.
It was a major setback, Sands says, and it was too late to call off the media. So GlobeTel gamely went through with the demonstration, inflating the airship and sending it up on a tether.
"They filled it with helium and sent it up on a rope like a blimp over a car dealership," Sands says in disgust.
Jones says that, based on what Sands saw, it was a sign that things have not gone well since his departure. "Definitely, it's a setback. When I was there, it took around four to six weeks to make the wire harness."
And as for how it bodes for the future, Jones says: "The company will succeed with appropriate funding and appropriate resources. If they don't have appropriate funding and resources, it would be very unlikely that this would happen."
Sands blames GlobeTel's problems on the company's obsession with promoting itself: "They're too busy selling the stratellites to actually make them," he says.
Doug Murch, the retired U.S. Air Force colonel who replaced Jones, disagrees, saying: "We are not making any outlandish claims. We understand the challenges in building these types of airships enough to say that we have confidence that we will build a near-space airship.
"There have been problems, but we've turned a corner."
Perhaps. But it's hard to believe that hot zone utopian dream is going to arrive anytime soon on the research and development budget GlobeTel is spending on its futuristic zeppelins.
In 2005, that budget amounted to a whopping $26,553.
But at least GlobeTel's executives haven't been left out in the cold.
Though the company has never turned a profit, GlobeTel pays big salaries and even bigger bonuses to its executives. In 2005, compensation for the top six executives totaled $12 million an 85 percent increase from the year before, according to the class-action complaint and SEC filings:
Former CEO Timothy Huff earned a $300,000 bonus on top of his $200,000 salary, with stock options and other benefits totaling $2.5 million.
Lawrence Lynch, former chief operating officer at GlobeTel, filed plans to sell more than $1.6 million of GlobeTel stock when it was trading at record highs.
Executive Vice President Steven King, whom the SEC has disciplined in the past for "securities fraud violations," is the sole owner of Investor Source Group LLC, which in turn owns ISG Jet LLC. GlobeTel contracts with ISG Jet for travel services and has paid it with company stock ISG has reported planned sales of more than $2.8 million.
Taboada, the analyst who had worked for Hornblower & Weeks, has been contracted by GlobeTel since 2005 via his company Charles Morgan Securities Inc. to consult and was paid in stock options. Last April, Taboada reported that he planned to sell that stock for $2.5 million.
Leigh Coleman, GlobeTel's former president and director, used an affiliate, Sky China Ltd., to make about $5 million by selling GlobeTel stock given to Sky China. Personally, Coleman reported he planned to sell $1.7 million of GlobeTel stock while it was trading at about $4.
Khoury has replaced Huff now chief of technology as CEO. Lynch and Coleman are gone.
"I'm not savvy about all this stuff, but when something smells bad, it smells bad," longtime shareholder Frank Buffone says. "I'm just waiting for them to go out of business. But I want to see if they make another P.R. push, and if they do, then I'll get rid of what I've got left."
Like many others, Buffone, 45, of White Plains, New York, bought in small 1,000 shares of Sanswire at 26 cents a share ($260) before GlobeTel bought the company. At the stock's inflated height, nearly $4 after the Russian P.R. bonanza, Buffone could have cashed in for nearly $4,000. But he held on, and his stake is now worth about $400. Others aren't so lucky. New Times heard from one investor, who wanted to remain anonymous, who claims to have lost millions on GlobeTel's fluctuations.
But Buffone, the small-timer, is philosophical. "It was a few bucks to throw in there," he says. "If you lose it, you lose it; no big deal. It wasn't that much money to begin with. A lot of people's money went to waste there. I'm one of the lucky few.
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