Bright spots at ComNet despite dismal attendanceSnow and ice might have contributed to the ghost town that was ComNet 2004, but the hearty few who attended found interesting sessions and saw announcements from\u00a0MCI\u00a0and\u00a0Sprint.In its day, ComNet was the gathering place for telecom and network executives as the first show of the year. Some of the largest service providers and equipment manufacturers used the venue for flashy press conferences announcing their latest products.Vendor participation and user attendance has trailed off over the years, and this year's ComNet was a shadow of what it once was, attracting only 71 exhibitors. IDG World Expo, which sponsors the show and is a sister company of Network World, would not reveal attendance numbers, but keynote presentations seemed to max out at about 70 people.One keynote was called "Beautiful Minds 2: The Innovators Speak", a session moderated by Network World President and Editorial Director John Gallant that featured Amtrak CIO Bob Galey and George Washington University CIO David Swartz. (You can\u00a0watch the session here.)Galey said because of the economic downturn, Amtrak didn't have any "gigantic, world-changing projects on the books" when its CEO David Gunn took office in May 2002. Amtrak is focused on getting existing systems and operations in "good working order" to improve efficiency and reduce costs, he said.That's not to say that the publicly subsidized organization doesn't have grand plans. Long term, Amtrak hopes to include its trains as nodes on its WAN so riders can access the Internet, Galey said.When the discussion turned to saving money, Galey said that Amtrak, a large\u00a0IBM customer, isn't afraid to shop business around when software contracts expire. To ensure he's getting the best price, Galey puts out multiple RFPs to avoid getting locked in.GWU's Swartz last year was facing a 15% IT budget cut. He looked across the organization to see how other departments' budget proposals were faring and realized many groups listed new IT projects as a way to improve efficiency. The CIO used that information to his advantage, arguing that his department couldn't support these projects and still make the cuts. Instead he ended up with a 4% to 5% increase in his own budget.Given the general upbeat nature of the CIOs, one audience member asked if either organization was hiring. Galey said Amtrak is taking small steps, hiring contractors to work on projects. Swartz indicated he is hiring.If attendees were looking for signs of industry recovery, they got something of a mixed message in ComNet's Venture Summit session. Ernst & Young partner Bryan Pearce reviewed a VentureOne\/Ernst & Young Venture Capital Report that showed fourth-quarter 2003 venture capital investments in private companies at $4.5 billion. That is the highest quarterly level reached in more than a year, Pearce said. But investments in telecom and network companies were down."It seems things bottomed out during 2003 . . . and are starting to show a healthy pickup," Pearce said about venture funding overall. However, "for communications and networking companies, we're not completely out of the woods yet," he said.While neither Sprint nor MCI were officially at the show, they separately made service announcements in conjunction with ComNet.Sprint expanded its line of VPN services by adding a Multi-protocol Label Switch-based VPN offering and\u00a0announced a Secure Sockets Layer Remote Access service. Both offerings are available, but the carrier would not reveal pricing.MCI\u00a0announced an Internet Broadband Satellite service\u00a0as an alternative for users that can't get DSL and don't want to pay the costs for a dedicated T-1. The carrier is teaming with satellite provider Tachyon to deploy the offering. The service will support data transmission speeds of 128K bit\/sec upstream and 384K bit\/sec downstream or 256K bit\/sec upstream and 1M bit\/sec downstream.MCI says the service will be available in March with prices starting at about $300 to $400 per month.