Editor’s note: Each Wednesday, Local Tech Wire features a company or executive emerging as a major player in the Queen City’s tech industry as our “Charlotte Beat” feature. MobileHWY, a Charlotte-based developer of instant messaging applications for use over wireless devices, is learning first-hand how the exposure that comes along with the endorsement of regional technology leaders can spur new business.

MobileHWY received the Charlotte Information Technologies Council’s 2001 Diamond in the Rough Award earlier this year. At that time the seven-employee company was humming along with about 60 corporate customers, but since then founders and brothers Paul and Curtis Watkins have been inundated with requests for proposals from county government across the Carolinas.

“The Blue Diamond Award was a good spotlight on us,” Curtis Watkins says. “It opened up a lot of doors for us, for people to see what we do here.”

MobileHWY provides an instant messaging application that was developed using wireless application protocol (WAP), a computer language that allows small packets of information to be transferred over a wireless Internet connection that appear to end users as several small windows on a cell phone’s display.

Mecklenburg County is arguably the most notable of MobileHWY’s 60-plus clients, Watkins says. County officials wanted to streamline the system by which more than 1,500 private building contractors learned the daily results of their inspections. They elected to use MobileHWY’s instant alert service that notifies contractors of their results in real time as soon as they are entered into a county database.

Sheila Sommers, an application specialist with Mecklenburg County, says MobileHWY’s system not only allows the contractors to receive inspection results in real time, it lets them communicate those results to employees working on location via MobileHWY’s alert service. The service runs construction firms about $200 annually per user.

Tink Willis, office manager for the construction company Lanehart Electric Company, says the county’s previously outdated system caused her to spend five to six hours out of every day tracking down inspection results over the Internet.

“It saves me a lot of time because on the Mecklenberg County Web site you have to input each individual permit number,” Willis says. “MobileHWY’s system let’s you go to one page, input your permit number, specify the type of inspection and then it sends the information back to you on one page.”

MobileHWY’s service is also offered in Cabarrus County, and the company is close to signing deals with Iredell County and the city of Rock Hill, South Carolina.

Shooting for the stars

Unlike the current mood of many upstart technology companies, MobileHWY isn’t planning on hunkering down and waiting for the capital market frost to melt. Paul Watkins has visions of a national expansion in the immediate future, riding the wave of anticipation related to the predicted growth of the wireless application industry in North America.

A Strategis Group study predicts that more than 483 million wireless devices will be sold to consumers during 2003 and that one out of three people throughout the world will own some kind of wireless device by 2008. And the number of wireless application users in North America will increase from 2 million in 2000 to 89 million in 2005, according to current growth levels.

MobileHWY may prove to be an attractive acquisition to a local or wireless service provider, when such a service is cuts down on communication times within the construction industry. Watkins says Nextel, which markets their services heavily toward construction companies, where workers are often on-site with no landline available, has shown at least a passive interest the company.

Meanwhile, MobileHWY is set to roll out service to the City of Fayetteville within the next 90 days, and is also is engaging in talks with the City of Raleigh and Wake County. Once the company has a core clientele, Watkins plans to hire additional personnel and begin the push to attract the attention of a major service provider to use its network and expand to other cities nationally.

Watkins says MobileHWY will need to locate funding first, and that the company is currently nailing together a venture capital proposal.

“It’s too early to nail down a figure right now,” Watkins says. “But we’re about ready to come out with that.”