Wednesday AM April 4th, 2007

Houston City Council to consider Earthlink city-wide wireless Internet network deal...Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau welcoming 17 May conventions, including 38th Offshore Technology Conference...Baytown's KAZH-TV dropping Azteca America Network...

A contract the Houston City Council considers this afternoon makes the city the "anchor tenant'' for Earthlink's proposed city-wide wireless Internet network. As such, the city would pay $2.5 million to use the network during the first five years of the project, the Houston Chronicle reports. Earthlink is expected to invest close to $50 million over two years to build the wireless network. Mayor Bill White and Earthlink officials have said it will be the nation's largest. The contract calls for Earthlink to provide outdoor coverage for about 600 square miles of the city and indoor service to 90 percent of the residential and commercial buildings in that area. The city will test the network throughout its construction to make sure it's up to standard. The City Council is expected to consider the contract Wednesday.

The Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau will welcome 17 conventions, trade shows and other events to the city in May. More than 9,365 attendees will spend an estimated $9.1 million in Houston during the month. Events include the National Association of Fleet Administrators-Fleet Management/LEG Institute's conference May 5th through the 8th at the GeorgeξR. Brown Convention Center; The 111th Casting Congress for the American Foundry Society May 15th through the 18th at the Hilton Americas and the Foundation for Better Healthcare's Women's Healthcare Forum May 18th and 19th at the George R. Brown Convention Center. The 38th annual Offshore Technology Conference Convention & Exposition is set for April 30th through May 3rd at Reliant Center.

California-based Pappas Telecasting has terminated its affiliation agreement with Azteca America Network, citing low ratings. The firm operates Baytown-based KAZH-TV, analog channel 57 and digital UHF channel 41, and Azteca America programming will end on June 30th. Pappas says it is choosing amongst various other options for programming. On March 26th, Pappas announced it is considering the sale of KAZH and other stations.

Macquarie Cook Power began trading and marketing operations in Houston on Monday, according to the Houston Business Journal. The 20-employee company provides physical and financial electricity trading and marketing services to electricity producers, mid-sized utilities, industrial users and other large wholesale energy sector participants.

Valero Energy's president says soaring labor costs on the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast are hurting the San Antonio-based company's productivity in the region. Greg King was speaking at an energy conference in New Orleans. He says the cost of skilled labor on the Gulf Coast for Valero Energy has increased 60 percent, while productivity is down 35 percent from 2004. Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in late August 2005. Valero Energy is the largest independent oil refiner in North America.

A Los Alamos National Lab physicist has figured out how to liquefy natural gas using sound waves. John Gorman is a 30-year veteran of the energy industry who runs Houston-based Swift LNG, which has licensed the lab's technology. Gorman says it's a low-cost, low-maintenance technology that can access fields that as of today have a zero value. Gorman and lab physicist Greg Swift--who has no stake in the company of the same name--have high hopes for the liquefaction technology. Swift LNG hopes to sell a 70-foot-tall system within the next three years. Gorman said such systems also could help companies get to "stranded gas''--methane in locations too small or remote to access with current technology.

Natural Resource Partners has acquired about 35 million tons of coal reserves in northern West Virginia from Western Pocohontas Properties in a $10.2 million deal, according to the Houston Business Journal. The Houston-based coal property manager expects an annual production of about 2.4 million tons.

Houston-based Eagle Rock Energy Partners is acquiring Laser Midstream Energy of Houston and properties from Houston-based Montierra Minerals & Production, according to the Houston Business Journal. The deals are worth $264.4 million.

The Texas Department of Insurance has approved the Employer & Employee Benefit Association as a Private Purchasing Cooperative. The regulations allow the cooperative to obtain healthcare coverage for small employer groups with two to 50 employees, with the same advantages available to large employer groups. The advantages of a private purchasing cooperative are that small employers are treated as a large group and not subject to small group regulations. The premium and risk assessment are spread over the entire group population.

Purvin & Gertz has opened a new office in Dubai, according to the Houston Business Journal. The Houston-based energy consultant says the office will support business activities in the Middle East.

Houston-based Encysive Pharmaceuticals has made its pulmonary arterial hypertension drug Thelin commercially available in Ireland, according to the Houston Business Journal. The company received European Union marketing authorization from the European Commission in August. Pulmonary arterial hypertension affects about 100,000 people in North American and Europe. High blood pressure and structural changes in the walls of pulmonary arteries constrict blood flow and oxygen, making the heart pump harder to overcome the resistance.

The federal agency that insures private pension plans reports $133 million in retirement benefits have gone unclaimed. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation says 32,000 people are owed money. Individual benefits range from $1 to $611,000, but the average unclaimed benefit is almost $5,000. The agency urges people who may have lost track of a pension credit earned during their career and think they may be owed retirement benefits to conduct a search using its online directory. People can search by their last name, company name or state where the company was headquartered. Texas has the fourth-most missing pension participants and unclaimed pension money with 1,987 people owed $6.86 million.

Oilfield contractor Baker Hughes expects revenue increases this year in several countries where it hasn't had a significant presence until recently. Baker Hughes CEO Chad Deaton offered the prediction during an energy conference in New Orleans. He said the Houston-based company projects 2007 revenue increases in Saudi Arabia, Brazil, India and Russia. He said Baker Hughes only had a "partial presence'' in those countries as recently as two years ago. In Saudi Arabia, Baker Hughes generated $99 million in revenue in 2004. Last year, it generated $391 million and expects to generate more than $530 million this year. Deaton says Baker Hughes also projects 2007 revenue increases of 30 percent in India, 41 percent in Russia and 77 percent in Brazil.

Continental Airlines shares jumped after the Houston-based airline said an important measure of revenue rose in March as oil prices fell. Analysts are giving more bullish forecasts for Continental's first-quarter results in the wake of the announcement. Continental said Monday night that revenue divided by capacity--a key measure in the airline industry--increased 4.5 to 5.5 percent compared to a year earlier. JP Morgan analyst Jamie Baker had been predicting a first-quarter loss. Now, he says the strong revenue figures for late March signals that Continental would instead post a profit, which he estimated at 19 cents per share. He said demand for air travel remains strong. Merrill Lynch analyst Michael Linenberg also upgraded his forecast, saying Continental would post a break-even first quarter instead of losing 20 cents per share. On the whole, analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial expect Continental to break even for the first quarter.

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