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Miserly Customers Put the Sellium on Tellium

The optical switch maker has failed to come up with a widely rumored new customer.

Even hot product shops like



are shivering as the tech-spending frost hardens.

Like so many of its upstart brethren, the networking gearmaker is finding itself stuck out in the cold as investors focus on its miserly customers rather than its compelling optical switching technology. Friday, Tellium stock slid 14% amid worries that big telcos' belt-tightening will squeeze even more air out of the company. Tellium stock has already fallen more than 80% from its 52-week high.

Friday's worries started with the fact that






, two of the optical shop's three customers, have made dramatic spending cuts in recent weeks. A research report predicting further cuts from Dynegy greased the skids for Tellium's fall, along with Tellium's failure to win new customers for its core optical switch. The company's third customer is

Cable & Wireless



Optical switches are sort of the heart and brains of new fiber-optic networks; they manage the pulsing lightwaves that carry bits of information from one point to another. It's been said that one day all networks will be optical, but the telecom collapse of the last 18 months suggests that day may not come for a long time.

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With the backdrop of a slowing economy, phone companies have been struggling with dwindling revenue and narrowing margins, due in part to overcapacity and vicious price competition. Thus the hunker-down phase, in which new network expansion projects -- such as the optical upgrades that shops like Tellium are desperately wagering on -- get shelved or killed.

Tellium has quite notoriously had several telcos testing its gear, including


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. But investors have grown skeptical about big announcements that are always, according to industry chatter, just around the corner. And with outfits like AT&T doing their own cost-cutting, the skepticism may well be prudent.

"We don't even know if AT&T is going to be in this network-buildout business any more, so it's difficult to see them spending $100 million on Tellium optical switches," says U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray analyst Conrad Leifur, who has a market perform rating on the stock. Piper Jaffray has no underwriting ties to Tellium.

Tough Year Ahead

In an interview Friday, Tellium CEO Harry Carr conceded that 2002 will be a challenge, given the industrywide spending slowdown. "If we don't have revenues from new customers by the third quarter, we will have trouble making the $288 million target," says Carr.

Tellium shares dropped 63 cents to $4.79 after UBS Warburg analyst Nikos Theodosopoulos lowered his rating to hold on concerns that Dynegy, which operates a broadband network in the U.S. and Europe, would further cut spending. Tellium also met Wall Street earnings estimates in a financial report issued Friday morning.

To be sure, Tellium's Dynegy problem could be minimized by the presence of a new customer. Analysts speculate that in addition to AT&T, telcos like



Deutsche Telekom

could one day join the company's customer list.

And though Carr says he's not in the business of predicting new business, he's sure Tellium will get some.

"For Tellium, it's actually pretty simple," the executive says. "It's about adding new customers, and we are not confused about that. We are very focused on making that happen. And we will."

But don't be surprised if investors continue to turn a cold shoulder to the stock until Carr delivers.