By Daniel Roth

(FORTUNE Magazine) – hq: woodcliff lake, n.j. founded: 1997 sales: n.a. employees: 35 stock: privately held web address: www.oxygen.org

It's Father's Day. You're stuck in New Delhi. Got to call Dad. Pick up the phone, dial, and your voice likely travels to Bombay, then to Marseilles, France, north to St.-Hilaire-de-Riez, France, across the Atlantic to Manahawkin, N.J., and finally over an American carrier's wires to your father's den. To get it there, India's international carrier, VSNL, had to predict years ago that it would need this capacity, and then enter into 25-year-long contracts to lease bandwidth on five different conduits. That's an expensive, inefficient system, and Neil Tagare thinks he can fix it.

Tagare (pronounced Tah-ga-ray), the founder and owner of CTR Group, plans to build from scratch a 200,000-mile-long underseas telecommunications network. By April 2002, he says, his Project Oxygen will do the following: sink 98,000 miles of fiber-optic cable, mostly in the world's oceans; connect 68 countries to a 640-gigabit-plus network; and launch 30 $30 million ships that will place, maintain, and fix the cable. Cost: $9 billion.

Armchair entrepreneurs, don't try this in your garage. Tagare's backed by some of the biggest names in banking and telecom: J.P. Morgan is raising $3 billion in private equity this summer for the initial fiber; and fibermaker Corning, telco equipment maker Lucent, diversified giant Tyco, France's Alcatel Alsthom, and Japan's NEC have ponied up additional funding. By December, Tagare expects that some of the world's largest telecom carriers will have committed to leasing $2 billion of capacity.

As the largest network ever built, Project Oxygen will give carriers more flexibility than they're used to. Currently there are about 370,000 miles of cable crisscrossing the seas, most acting as bridges that connect one point to another. To ensure access to those lines, telecom companies sign long-term contracts with the cable's owner. Tagare's network, by contrast, will be so vast, with so many cables, that it will more resemble a highway system. While carriers will still commit in advance for capacity, they will be able to change their routing as traffic demands. Say that one morning in the next millennium, all the Internet users in Chile decide to watch a live Webcast of Prince William's royal wedding, hosted on a London site. Entel Chile (a Chilean phone company) can then switch its capacity to Oxygen's London pipes from its usual link connecting, say, Santiago and San Francisco. And since Oxygen will be independent, phone companies won't have to negotiate with a competitor, as they do today when, for example, GTE wants a piece of AT&T's line.

Laying cable is the easy part of this project--anyone with a boat, a crane, and some fiber optics can do that. Where Tagare, 36, shines is in his ability to make deals with governments and telcos. Before founding CTR in 1997, the Bombay native helped build the first privately funded underseas telecom system, FLAG (fiber-optic link around the globe). Over seven years he traveled to more than 100 countries, meeting with telecom execs and government officials. He visited Egypt 29 times in 18 months. "In Egypt," he says, "you don't get an appointment for the morning of the 17th; you get an appointment for the week of the 17th, so you go and wait."

Oxygen will eventually be ten times the size of FLAG. Tagare took a salary from Nynex and other partners the first time around; this time he wants to own about half of the potentially multibillion-dollar company. Maybe that's why he's willing to spend half of the next year away from his wife and two children, a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old, working things out with global powers. In Saudi Arabia (one of ten countries where Project Oxygen will cross land), Saudi Telecom wants assurance that it can censor content entering the country. Tagare consents. When dealing with armed forces, Tagare must show that his network crosses no military communications cables. If it does, he redraws the plan; but the military won't tell him where its cables lie. That means constant guessing until the system passes.

And so it goes. By the end of 2000, Tagare expects to have enough of his system in place to begin transmitting data. Then, maybe, he can take a rest.

--Daniel Roth