Latin American Telecom Sector Es Muy Positivo - TheStreet

Nothing is more irritating when surfing the Net than having a connection suddenly die. After all, what good is half a graphics file? Or worse, half a sports score?

In the U.S., reliable phone lines have largely eliminated such high-tech annoyances, although slow download times could still frustrate the patience of Isidore of Seville, the

patron saint of the Internet. In Latin America, however, landlines are so unpredictable, telecommunications companies are scrapping the existing structure and leapfrogging to fiber-optic networks in anticipation of an online boom down south.

The rush to broadband technologies, which allow massive amounts of data to be moved quickly, is creating a new class of investment darlings. Call them the

LatInternets

.

Buenos Aires-based

Impsat Fiber Networks

( IMPT) is a good example of the new breed. On Feb. 1, when it joined the LatInternet initial public offering fiesta, the 13-year-old company jumped 12, or 70%, to 29. The IPO raised $195.5 million for the company, which has not yet turned a profit.

The enthusiasm over Latin America's burgeoning love affair with the worldwide Web has helped push tech- and telecom-heavy regional mutual funds higher as they invest in companies like Spanish- and Portuguese-language media companies

StarMedia Network

(STRM) - Get Report

and

El Sitio

( LCTO), both of which have turned in double-digit gains since listing. Among the best-performing funds in the class: the $30.7 million

( RLAEX)ABN AMRO Latin America Equity fund, which boasts a one-year return of 104.6%, and the $13.8 million

(MILAX) - Get Report

Morgan Stanley Dean Witter Latin America Institutional fund, which has risen 94.5% over the period.

"There is value in broadband," says Heidi Anderson, who manages the $18.6 million

( TELAX)Templeton Global Investment Trust Latin America fund, which has a one-year return of 89.5% and holds Impsat stock. "We participate in it when we can."

Right now, around 10 million Latin Americans -- 2% of the region's population -- are online, but that's expected to jump to 65 million by 2005, according to

Jupiter Communications

, an Internet consulting firm in New York. By comparison, the U.S. already has about 100 million -- or 37% of the population -- wired.

Fund managers, of course, are looking for companies that have managerial experience, something few of the LatInternets offer. As a result, they're looking for firms that have allied themselves with mature, experienced overseas telecoms. Impsat, which is targeting business clients by building a 3,500-kilometer fiber-optic network that will link major urban areas in Argentina, Brazil and Colombia, is particularly appealing because it has banded with companies, like

British Telecom

( BTY) and Bermuda-based

Global Crossing

(GBLX)

. Other favorites include Brazilian telecom

Embratel

( EMT) and Mexican telecom

Telmex

( TMX).

U.S. companies, traditionally active in the region, are also attracting attention.

AT&T

(T) - Get Report

is about to launch

AT&T Latin America

, which boasts 1,600 corporate customers and 45,900 miles of fiber-optic cable. It was created through the combination of two recently acquired companies: Miami-based

FirstCom Corp.

and Brazil's

Netstream

. Spain's

Telefonica

(TEF) - Get Report

, is also getting involved with plans to acquire four Latin American companies and combine all of their data-transmission businesses into a single unit.

For residential customers, however, broadband will likely take the form of cable or wireless.

AOL

(AOL)

will be an important player, given the proposed merger with

Time Warner

(TWX)

and an increasing presence though the coming

AOL Latin America

IPO. The combined company is likely to extend its cable network in Latin America and pose a potential threat to regional telecommunications companies.

A cheaper alternative could be wireless Internet connections. Around 41 million Latin Americans, or 8% of the region's population, own cell phones, as opposed to 85 million Americans, or 30%. "Broadband is great if you can afford it, but think how many people have cell phones in Latin America -- that's a big audience," says Susan Segal, general partner at

Chase Capital Partners

, a venture capital firm with investments in Latin American Internet companies like Starmedia, travel site

Viajo.com

and online financial-services portal

Patagon.com

-- all of which could benefit from wireless Internet connections.

In the end, however, no one can say for sure how Latin Americans will connect to the Web in the years to come. Except, perhaps, for Isidore of Seville.