Unlike software companies and Internet startups, few major telecommunications companies are founded by visionary businessmen who nurse their hopes from garage-concept into giant multinationals. Maybe it takes too much money, the competition is too tough, or perhaps telecoms is the one industry that just cannot be cracked by a single good idea, a market niche, or one new technology. Whatever the reasons, telecoms executives are rarely charismatic entrepreneurs. That is what makes the story of Ricky Wong Wai-kay, chairman of Hong Kong-based City Telecom HK, all the more unusual. The 38-year-old is co-founder of one of Hong Kong's leading long-distance telecoms companies and an important player to bring broadband Internet services into your living room. Even cynics who believe mid-sized firms such as City Telecom do not stand a chance of surviving the looming firefight in the telecoms sector admit the company's achievements are impressive. During the past 12 months, Mr Wong launched iChannel, a 'groundbreaking' experiment in new media which seeks to provide television-style Chinese content over the Internet. He accepted the Enterprise Trophy on behalf of City Telecom in the annual DHL SCMP Business Awards. He also carried out - and survived - a war of attrition in the IDD long-distance phone market against bigger rivals. And when the Government handed out five licences for wireless local fixed telecommunications network services last week - the golden key to the next generation of Internet services - City Telecom was on the list, along with heavyweights SmarTone, CCT Telecom, Henderson Land Development and PSINet. The telecoms industry is really about Internet broadband and on-line content. Margins in the long-distance market have dwindled, while the growth in data traffic rapidly outpaces voice traffic. Those companies that can woo Internet subscribers, build large capacity networks, and develop the programming and value-added services to attract Web traffic are seen as the likely winners. When it comes to dodging a bullet Mr Wong may just have the luck of the Road Runner. Look closely over his career, and a pattern becomes clear: He has made a habit of outperforming expectations and emerging on top of a brawl. 'If I didn't have a technical background, I don't think I could have managed this business,' Mr Wong explained. 'You have to have a strong sense of the consumer market and not just be a pure businessman or a pure engineer.' On first impression, Mr Wong does not strike the pose of a telecoms tycoon. He is fresh-faced, young enough to be the gym teacher at the neighbouring secondary school and easily approachable. 'Now that it has two licences it's got a great future,' said a telecoms analyst with McKinsey & Company. 'Ricky has always been pretty good at keeping cost down, he doesn't spend large amounts of money on elaborate projects. I don't know who advises him, but he's getting excellent counsel.' Ricky Wong graduated with a degree in electrical engineering in Hong Kong and landed his first job with IBM. After working for a couple of years, he transferred to the company's operations in Toronto in the mid-1980s. Frustrated by big blue's corporate hierarchy, he struck out on his own with entrepreneurial panache, forming the computer distribution company ADI Systems. Similar to Dell, ADI Systems assembled and distributed custom-built computers at what was the beginning of a surge for low-cost desktop PCs. The company grew into one of the 100 largest Canadian computer firms before he cashed out. By the late 1980s Canada took the first tentative steps to deregulate its monopoly long-distance telephone market, to create a competitive structure similar to the United States. Realising that Canada's large Asian immigrant population made a lot of long-distance phone calls, Mr Wong acted on a basic idea: people would spend longer on the phone if rates were cheaper. 'Telecommunications looked a lot more promising,' Mr Wong said, noting the average call to Asia cost C$3 (about HK$16) per minute. 'There was a big demand for low-cost long-distance services, especially among the Asian community.' In 1991, coughing up a HK$300,000 investment from his own pocket, he set up CTI as a reseller of long-distance calling time. United States telecoms giants such as MCI and Sprint fronted bulk long-distance carriage of up to a million minutes per month on 90-day credit terms. Using full-page newspaper ads - the hard-sell media campaigns that would become a CTI trademark - Mr Wong attracted consumers with steep discounts, in a race to bill and collect before the 'window' of credit was due. The company focused mainly on the long-distance market between Asia and the metropolitan hubs of Vancouver and Toronto. In 1992, CTI established a Hong Kong office to test the resell concept in what was then a monopoly market dominated by Hong Kong Telecom (now Cable & Wireless HKT). Facing a regulatory dilemma, he dusted off his programming books and, along with a team of engineers, set about work on an innovative solution. His idea: create a call-back system which legally skirted the regulations using a complicated telephony switching system, which ultimately billed users on CTI's cheaper rate structure. 'Regulators eventually saw competition as beneficial and welcomed our innovative idea,' he said. Others might say Mr Wong forced the regulators' hand: Either way, the Office of Telecommunications Authority officially deregulated the market in 1992, giving rise to a new generation of cut-rate IDD companies. So what is the key to success in such a turbulent industry? Mr Wong leans back in his chair, offering a carefully scripted answer: 'We did a good job in the last six or seven years. We managed to outperform a lot of big Hong Kong companies. We demonstrated good people, a strong management team and delivered what we promised.' Mr Wong is now setting his sights on developing a range of programming for CTI's Web sites, which he describes as a global Chinese television station broadcast over the Internet. Through iChannel and its links iLove and Vagazine, he offers a range of entertainment, music and news programmes, much of it created at an on-site studio. With more than 70 people working on the project, including its own news reporting unit, the site has grown from its August launch to become one of the top five sites in Hong Kong, attracting more than 1.2 million visitors per day. Bolstered by the Web site's success, Mr Wong has decided to flex a little muscle, committing HK$100 million for Internet productions this year. 'Only old people watch television nowadays,' he said. But overcoming the content gap will not be as easy as it sounds. Heavyweight Cable & Wireless HKT has signed a content agreement with Star TV, giving it access to the broadcaster's full programming schedule. TVB, another major local broadcaster, already has its content sharing agreements locked up. That leaves CTI with few options, except to spend scarce resources on a young production team with little experience pleasing audiences. 'Cable & Wireless is a US$30 billion company, while CTI is worth US$300 million,' said Mr Locke. 'They are one hundredth of the size, people like it because he's the underdog.' Gearing up for a head-to-head war with HKT's iTV, CTI plans to offer basic telephony, television and high-speed Internet access throughout a wireless fixed network. Test trials of the relatively easy-to-establish system were carried out last year and now that a licence has been approved, CTI, through its wholly owned subsidiary, plans to begin rolling out the new system in April. There is no doubt Mr Wong believes the technology could provide CTI's chance to become a major Internet player. Unlike fibre-optic cable, which could take 10 years to connect to every home in Hong Kong, the wireless network is simple to install. The system uses base stations to transmit voice, data, and video signals via microwaves to rooftop dishes. The signals are then carried into flats over standard coaxial cable. Teams of technicians could wire up a block of flats in a week. Mr Wong said the system will carry high-speed data transmission at up to three megabytes per second, more than twice as fast as HKT's current high-speed Internet access. It all adds up to faster transmission times and shorter waits for the growing number of multi-media services. Importantly, the system, plus the satellite licence, reduces CTI's dependence on HKT's network. Over the mid-term, CTI is expected to suffer falling IDD rates and shrinking margins. Most analysts believe the company will take a hit in earnings while they weather the heavy infrastructure costs and fork out heavily for programme development and other Internet service. However, CTI's stock price did not reflect any doubt, jumping more than 12 per cent after the licence decision. Revenue from broadband services could prove lucrative but many observers believe CTI's long-term success depends on its ability to transform away from telecoms infrastructure into content.